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Book Review: 'A Chorus Rises,' Bethany C. Morrow

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Bethany Morrow - COURTESY OF BETHANY MORROW
  • Courtesy Of Bethany Morrow
  • Bethany Morrow

What happens when the spotlight dims? When you go from social media superstar to pariah? Such is the tale of teenage influencer Naema Bradshaw, the heroine of Bethany C. Morrow's latest novel, A Chorus Rises, the sequel to A Song Below Water. One could say that Naema would have realized singer-songwriter Nina Simone's wildest dreams — she is the very epitome of "Young, Gifted and Black."

Special emphasis must be placed on the word "gifted" here. Naema lives a fairy-tale existence. Blessed with gorgeous looks, a magical gift of melody and a legion of social media followers that would make any influencer who's worth their salt jealous, Naema has it all. Her status, devoted boyfriend and tight group of friends are the envy of LOVE, a blog akin to Instagram, where Naema reigns supreme.

In this young-adult tale of magic and social media madness, Naema also belongs to an elite magical race called the Eloko. This is a group of creatures whose power lies in the harmonious melodies they sing. The Eloko enchant, delight and enthrall all those who meet them.

In addition, Naema is a member of a secretive and magical witness-protection program whose sole mission is to guard other mythological humanoid creatures. One fateful prom night, however, Naema's life of power and privilege comes crashing down when she "outs" Tavia, a Black teenage siren she's sworn to protect, by livestreaming across LOVE Tavia's devastating power of turning people into stone. (A Song Below Water gave us these events from Tavia's perspective.)

Naema is figuratively "stoned" as a result of the incident, as she faces the physical brunt of Tavia's power and the social media backlash that follows. Naema loses everything in an instant — her fame, her friends and her place in the elite magical protection network.

Another complication? Tavia takes control of the narrative and sells her story to the highest bidder. A made-for-TV movie replaying the ugly prom-night incident cements Naema's newly earned status as a cold-hearted villain.

As the virtual community that once celebrated Naema now shuns her, she's forced to grapple with a devastating fall for which she never could have mentally or emotionally prepared. A Chorus Rises illustrates this spectacular collision of race and cancel culture.

Based near Plattsburgh, N.Y., Morrow is a best-selling novelist whose work straddles speculative, fantasy and historical fiction. She is well equipped to guide readers through a hyper-realistic landscape of teenage social media influencers and magical creatures. Call it Mean Girls meets "Cruel Summer" with a delicious twist — this time from the perspective of a girl who epitomizes the phrase "Black Girl Magic."

One of the most fascinating issues Morrow presents in this tale is that of Black authenticity. Throughout the book, Naema grapples with that concept as she tries to explore who she is. We can almost imagine her asking the question that plagues many Black youth: What exactly does it mean to be Black enough?

Morrow skillfully portrays a Black girl who is not afraid to confront the depths of her identity. At times she wonders where the boundaries are and, most importantly, where she fits in terms of cultural expectations.

A Chorus Rises, by Bethany C. Morrow, Tor Teen, 272 pages. $17.99. - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • A Chorus Rises, by Bethany C. Morrow, Tor Teen, 272 pages. $17.99.

The issue of respectability politics also comes into play in A Chorus Rises in ways that many Black teenagers will recognize and understand. For instance, Naema compares herself to her nemesis, Tavia, by debating what it means that she has chemically processed hair while Tavia has natural locks: "I'm not a naturalista like Tavia and her sister, so I'm not supposed to like the way my relaxed hair gets slick and limp when damp, but I do."

Naema realizes how she is judged by the outside world but still chooses to embrace her Blackness in a way that feels healthy to her. Internally, she pushes back against the external perceptions: that she can't both embrace her kinky hair and choose to chemically straighten it.

Morrow's writing shines as she conveys the anxieties and psychological pressures experienced by a young Black woman in America. She explores the idea that a person's actual identity and others' perceptions of it don't always align — and there is nothing wrong with that.

Morrow's protagonist comes alive on the page with alacrity and startling complexity. Naema shows young readers that it's OK to be exactly who they are, even if others don't always understand or appreciate that.

The author also wonderfully captures the steady pulse of angst that pervades teenage life. Dragged across social media for outing another teenager, Naema yearns not to be defined by that single moment.

"There's more to my life than prom night," she firmly tells her father about the incident. Readers will appreciate a character who knows that she's more than the worst thing that ever happened to her.

It's fascinating to explore these themes through the lens of social media, where it seems that the entire world can weigh in on your most humiliating moment. As Morrow portrays Naema's public downfall, we're able to see what that might look and feel like for a Black teenager in this country.

Morrow gives Naema the latitude to be not just young, Black and gifted but also flawed. Her character, however, experiences tremendous growth as her initial thirst for revenge melts into a heartfelt search for redemption. This arc alone is riveting.

In a stunning and disheartening passage, Morrow delves into how the media exploit and profit from Black trauma. In a confessional moment, Naema somberly admits:

The idea that my story has appeal as long as I got hurt, that maybe folks will fawn over me again if only I'm willing to lay bare my trauma, and really lean into the devastation of being Stoned, of losing my melody for six hours, of not knowing if I was ever coming back.

Naema must contend with not only the weight of her trauma but also the monetization of it in the form of Tavia's movie. Morrow's depiction of Naema's trials and tribulations crackles with honesty.

A Chorus Rises is a revelatory journey of Naema's search for self-discovery. Morrow treats Naema's challenges with precision and tact as she takes us into the mind of a Black teenager who's trying to find her way back to acceptance. We are lifted along with Naema as she navigates these internal conflicts. We feel her. Somewhere along the way, we realize that we might actually be a lot like her.

As we race toward the book's stunning conclusion, we learn that the path to authenticity is about reconnecting with family and friends and exploring ancestral ties. Naema's grit and self-determination are magnified when she aligns with her found purpose and calling — celebrating, protecting and lifting up other Black women. Most importantly, however, she learns that the world of social media is never what it appears to be.

From A Chorus Rises

When the love song ends, and I push off a little so that the space between us grows, but not in a way that an amateur skater like Priam would notice, it's meant to seem like inertia. But maybe our eye contact is too constant for that. His expression doesn't change, and eventually I give up on pretense and just smoothly rotate on one quad, going solo so I can twist and twirl when I want to.

I get it; not everybody did ballet and figure skating, and some people really can't figure out how to navigate eight wheels and still look like they invented grace. But I can't say it doesn't get old having to hide that you can, just to have a partner.

Plus the new beat is too dope to waste. Upside-Down Portland, and its alternate version of my doting boyfriend, will still be there when the song ends, and I have to decide exactly how much I'm leaving behind when I get on the plane tomorrow. In the meantime, I loosen up, feel my shoulders start to roll, let all my weight drop into my seat, and weave my legs in and out of each other as I take the turn faster than anyone else. I whip around and groove backward so the other skaters can't help but watch me, my eyes closed for a moment before I have to start checking over my shoulder. Naturally, I work the glances into my dance so it looks like I'm more than just flawless, more than just graceful and rhythmic and impossible to imitate.

Because maybe being Eloko doesn't come with a cinematic power like Tavia and Effie have. Maybe it doesn't mean having a sixth sense, or knowing when to weave, or how to take back the spotlight. But maybe that's what being Naema means.

Listen. Sometimes you've gotta remind folks who tf you are.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Magical Thinking"