Review of Upstate: A Novel

Upstate: A Novel

262 pages

Author: Kalisha Buckhanon


There are a few novels that are lyrical, filled with an indescribable level of musical magic that leaves the reader, and ultimately, the listener, wanting more. It has the ability to feed that lingering, unfulfilled, and longing hunger; a hunger unwilling to accept just ‘any’ flavor. I found myself searching for that flavor, searching for that music, looking for a specific orchestral novel created by the distant rhythm of bass guitars, and crashing cymbals. I wanted a symphony of simplistically complex narrative, complicated love and a universal story line that would linger in my psyche until I became so absorbed that I couldn’t tell where I ended and it began. I wanted a butterfly in Harlem.

Upstate, the debut novel by Kalisha Buckhanon, was a completely accidental find; a novel that literally fell from the shelf and into my lap. Perhaps this magical phenomenon was the first sign that I should give the book a sincere look.I purchased Upstate, thinking that it was, quite likely, another novel calling attention to the deleterious plight of African-American youth, filled with drugs, sex, poverty, and death, despite the glaring fact that the description read differently. I relegated this book to another addition to my collection of “come down” novels– the ones I secretly stash in my backpack or in the archives of my Kindle– to read as cerebral relief from more complex works. Then I read Upstate’s first line:

Dear Natasha,

Baby, the first thing I need to know from you is do you believe I killed my father?

There it was. A single profoundly engaging line. The lure that snagged me, and I was dangling from Buckhanon’s hook, in Buckhanon’s pond; ravenous, famished, longing to be fed more and more. The sky opened. UPSTATE! That one line was my butterfly. What I discovered (or, perhaps Kalisha Buckhanon uncovered) was magnificence in a literary format I had not experienced since the reading of Slave Narratives compiled from letters and notes by people in captivity. There was an element of captivity in this novel, an arresting premise that had the capacity to make the reader laugh, and cheer, and cry—simultaneously. Amazing was how a series of letters, between two people, could create a complete novel, a bounty of revelation full of magic and emotion. Upstate, this complex epistolary novel, exploded my senses. Little did I initially know its impact. How quickly I learned.

The story covers the embattled, challenging, complicated relationship of Antonio and Natasha, and the roller-coaster ride that is their very young (seventeen and sixteen  years old, respectively) and profoundly immature lives. Antonio is serving ten years in prison for the murder of his father, a roguish and chronically abusive man. During his bid, aside from periodic visits, Antonio and Natasha’s base of communication is letters written feverishly and engorged with dreams that have little to no possibility of ever coming to fruition …ever. The emotion in each letter rises and falls, unique in that the dialogue isn’t really dialogue but carefully crafted monologues, a ‘call and response’ type endeavor that works so perfectly that it makes the reader more voyeur than reader. BRILLIANT MS. BUCKHANON!!!

There is love between Natasha and Antonio and it is real, although straddling the rail of becoming unrequited and stagnant, and, as the story further develops, the responsibilities that come with this stagnantly real love prove to be far more difficult than it was capable of enduring. In prison, Antonio becomes a part of the culture, enveloped by the fantasy-filled idea of a better world and a stronger resolve when he got out while Natasha finds the hole in the proverbial fence of oppression and has ventured through it into a world bigger than both of their imaginations. The question thus becomes, who was the actual prisoner? And the answer is a resounding, both of them.

Kalisha Buckhanon covers the spectrum of life’s love mystery wonderfully, unfolding and revealing each layer just enough to show that there was an actual effect inside, from teenage adoration to the possibility and reality of freedom after several years in prison, to a more mature love that, although incomplete, never quieted. She lets the reader know that there are happy endings of sorts, that there is hope in what initially appeared hopeless, and avoided the common, stereotypical sorrowful physical demise of her characters. Buckhanon created, through each of their letters, another step toward resolve and often left us, the reader, wondering if the characters read and absorbed them in the same vain that we did. The answer to that is: sometimes.

In the end, Natasha pens an exclamatory rant, and Antonio follows up with a letter that compliments with a more sincere finality to their extinguishing relationship. This is as close as they ever get to actual closure, and this, the reader realizes, is the beauty of Buckhanon’s work; that we are absorbed by the characters, incensed by their ridiculously overwhelming need for validation and comfort, and hopeful that their worlds would not meet a catastrophic end. Equally, we are left with more questions; the last being… “Is this the real end?”

There are novels that are lyrical, filled with an indescribable level of musical wonder that leaves the reader, the listener, wanting more. It feeds that lingering, unfulfilled, longing hunger; a hunger unwilling to accept just ‘any’ flavor. When I read the final lines, it was clear; Upstate is a lyrical love story, orchestral in its telling and Kalisha Buckhanon, who since the publishing of this novel has released a second, Conception, and has a third on the way, has undeniably proven to be a most gifted and well-versed conductor. A beautiful read, as rare as a butterfly in Harlem.

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