276 pages, softcover: $15.95.
Dana Johnson’s thoughtful and affecting first novel, Elsewhere, California, is narrated by a girl named Avery, whom we first meet as a child growing up in South Central Los Angeles in the ’70s and ’80s. When her brother is threatened by gangs, their parents decide to move to the suburbs. Avery eagerly prepares for the “long journey” to West Covina. Her father responds, “Journey? It ain’t but thirty minutes up the road.” But Avery learns that however short the distance, West Covina might as well be another planet.
The chapters alternate between Avery’s childhood and her life as an adult, when she has become an artist, living with Massimo, an older Italian man, in his swanky Hollywood house and looking forward to an exhibition of her art at a Los Angeles gallery.
Avery’s language deftly evolves throughout the course of the book. Johnson writes the early chapters in the voice Avery used as a young child — “We caint go tricka treating. The Crips went and shot somebody and the Bloods done shot em back” — while the later chapters show the way Avery has learned to speak as a successful black woman trying to move smoothly between society’s layers, a knack her best friend Brenna calls her “blendability.”