Book Review + Free book club questions
The Unsettled is an unforgettable novel by Ayana Mathis. The story follows Ava Carson and her son, Toussant, shortly after they are kicked out of their home by her husband, Abemi. Toussant’s father, Cass, has been absent from their lives for some time, and Ava is somewhat estranged from her mother. As Ava and Toussant navigate life in Philadelphia, her mother navigates aging alone in a rural community in Alabama, where most of the young people have moved on and a few senior citizens remain, trying to hold the legacy together for a generation that has moved on.
Summary of The Unsettled
The title of the book, The Unsettled, is a clever play on words. The lives and trials of Ava and her son, Toussant, are unsettling. They’re also literally unsettled – having been kicked out of their home by Ava’s new husband. The story opens with Ava filling out paperwork so she may be admitted to a shelter. She is repulsed by the squallor of the shelter and the people within.
Avas son, Toussant, was in a pretty good public school before he and his mom had to move to a homeless shelter. He gets bullied on the bus and is pretty bored at the school – they’re going over stuff he learned a long time ago – and ends up skipping school most days to hang out with some of the older street folks. Ava is too depressed to notice that her son isn’t attending school.
Avas mother lives on a small settlement that was founded by freedman after the civil war in Bonaparte, AL. She would be welcome to come home, and her mother would love to see her, but she instead stays in a homeless shelter. The little town where her mom and the other families that settle are getting on in age and they’re constantly battling land developers eager to buy the land out from under them and build vacation homes on the river.
Eventually, Ava leaves the shelter and reconciles with Toussant’s father. They begin running a free clinic and community garden to help their neighbors and build a community similar to what Ava’s mom has in Alabama. It’s a long route that Ava takes to get back home, but she does get there. This community is similar to the “MOVE” community of black activists that was firebombed in Philadelphia in 1985. Their community, “Ark,” has similar troubles with the law.
From the moment Ava Carson and her ten-year-old son, Toussaint, arrive at the Glenn Avenue family shelter in Philadelphia 1985, Ava is already plotting a way out. She is repulsed by the shelter’s squalid conditions: their cockroach-infested room, the barely edible food, and the shifty night security guard. She is determined to rescue her son from the perils and indignities of that place, and to save herself from the complicated past that led them there.
Ava has been estranged from her own mother, Dutchess, since she left her Alabama home as a young woman barely out of her teens. Despite their estrangement and the thousand miles between them, mother and daughter are deeply entwined, but Ava can’t forgive her sharp-tounged, larger than life mother whose intractability and bouts of debilitating despair brought young Ava to the outer reaches of neglect and hunger.
Ava wants to love her son differently, better. But when Toussaint’s father, Cass, reappears, she is swept off course by his charisma, and the intoxicating power of his radical vision to destroy systems of racial injustice and bring about a bold new way of communal living.
Meanwhile, in Alabama, Dutchess struggles to keep Bonaparte, once a beacon of Black freedom and self-determination, in the hands of its last five Black residents—families whose lives have been rooted in this stretch of land for generations—and away from rapidly encroaching white developers. She fights against the erasure of Bonaparte’s venerable history and the loss of the land itself, which she has so arduously preserved as Ava’s inheritance.
As Ava becomes more enmeshed with Cass, Toussaint senses the danger simmering all around him—his well-intentioned but erratic mother; the intense, volatile figure of his father who drives his fledgling Philadelphia community toward ever increasing violence and instability. He begins to dream of Dutchess and Bonaparte, his home and birthright, if only he can find his way there.
Brilliant, explosive, vitally important new work from one of America’s most fiercely talented storytellers.
The Unsettled – Reviews & Resources around the Web
- New York Times Book Review of the Unsettled
- Ayana Mathis reading from The Unsettled
- Interview with Ayana Mathis about The Unsettled from Bookpage
Printable Book Club Questions for The Unsettled By Ayana Mathis
- Think about Ava’s decline while she is in the shelter. Why did she undergo such a drastic change in a short period of time?
- Are there communities like Bonaparte, AL still in existence, do you think? Do you know of one?
- Why is Toussant drawn to the local homeless population?
- Why do you think Ava didn’t mention Toussant in any of her letters to her mother?
- How is Ava’s relationship with Cassius similar to her mother’s relationship with Caro Carson?
- Miss Simmons, the shelter registrar, changes the way she refers to Ava over time. In the beginning, she is “Miss Carson.” Then, “the Carson woman.” Later, she refers to Ava as “813” – her room number. Why?
- Think of Ava’s role as a child in Bonaparte vs. her role in ARK as an adult. Which was happiest? Which was better suited for her?
- What role in life do you think Ava SHOULD play? What would make her happy and fulfilled?
- Ava and Toussant were about to lose the small amount of assistance they had when Cass happens back in to their lives. What would have become of them if they didn’t find Cass when they did?
- What role does Ava’s head injury and memory lapses play in her behavior at the shelter? Would seeing a doctor have helped her?
- What do you think happens to Toussant?