X: A Novel by Ilyasah Shabazz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The premise of Ilyasah Shabazz’s most recent novel, X, is so unusual as to seem off-putting at first: in a narrative geared specifically toward young adults, a fictionalized Malcolm X plays out the early part of his life, starting with his exodus from Michigan to Boston and ending just before he begins the outspoken racial and religious activism for which we remember him today. The story is doubly odd because the author, the daughter of Malcolm X himself, has taken the liberty to novelize her famous father’s turbulent life—and in the first person. I’m not sure how, but Shabazz has taken this dubious stew of almost overambitious narrative points and crafted a surprisingly engaging story, which, although it contains hallmarks of the young adult genre like forbidden love and coming-of-age internal conflict, also features pacing and setting that are remarkably sophisticated for a YA novel. (Most of the first six chapters takes place on a largely uneventful train ride, and it takes a measure of patience to get to the meat of the book.) The protagonist Malcolm, even if he bears suspiciously little resemblance to the more weathered and polarizing Malcolm X most of us are familiar with, is a memorable and magnetic character, and this narrative of his life is strange in concept but impressive in execution.