Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day is the story of star-crossed lovers Ophelia “Cocoa” Day and George Andrews. The setting of the novel is split between New York, where Cocoa and George live, and the fictional island of Willow Springs, where Cocoa was born.
Willow Springs lies between Georgia and South Carolina, but belongs to neither. It doesn’t even appear on a map. Willow Springs is a liminal place. It exists, but it doesn’t. The living and the dead walk its roads. Its residents are Christian, but deeply entrenched in the hoodoo spirituality of their slave ancestors that once inhabited the island. Mama Day, the island matriarch, has visions, knows the power of herbs, and can conjure up lightning storms.
Mama Day has three narrators: Cocoa, George, and an omniscient voice, the communal voice of Willow Springs. It is primarily the story of Cocoa, Mama Day’s great-niece, who returns to Willow Springs from New York every year. The summer she returns with her husband George, the family faces a series of events that tests them all and forces Cocoa to confront the deep secrets of the islands and of her family.
I can’t tell if this novel is so complex that it’s simple or the other way around. I’ve always liked family sagas and I enjoyed reading about the Day lineage and the island’s slave history. I love the novel’s magical elements, allusions to Shakespeare, and treatment of gender. I adored Mama Day and the other characters, but I didn’t like Cocoa. I found her spoiled, oblivious, and not entirely deserving of George’s love. The novel felt anticlimactic, like I was waiting for something big to happen, but I either missed it or it never came. That said, the magic, the colourful characters, the richness of the Willow Springs makes Mama Day a delightful read.