Brittney Morris, author of the 2019 masterpiece Slay, is back with The Cost of Knowing, an evocative YA story that explores family roots, prejudice, and resilience in a modern-day America. The book focuses on a Black teen who has the power to see into the future, but is it a blessing, or a curse?
Here’s the summary…
Sixteen-year-old Alex Rufus is trying his best. He tries to be the best employee he can be at the local ice cream shop; the best boyfriend he can be to his amazing girlfriend, Talia; the best protector he can be over his little brother, Isaiah. But as much as Alex tries, he often comes up short.
It’s hard to for him to be present when every time he touches an object or person, Alex sees into its future. When he touches a scoop, he has a vision of him using it to scoop ice cream. When he touches his car, he sees it years from now, totaled and underwater. When he touches Talia, he sees them at the precipice of breaking up, and that terrifies him. Alex feels these visions are a curse, distracting him, making him anxious and unable to live an ordinary life.
And when Alex touches a photo that gives him a vision of his brother’s imminent death, everything changes.
With Alex now in a race against time, death, and circumstances, he and Isaiah must grapple with their past, their future, and what it means to be a young Black man in America in the present.
The Cost of Knowing by author Brittney Morris is of two minds really. It’s of course part fiction, offering an intense narrative framed around both systematic racism and an ancestral surrealism. And it’s also part non-fiction, with Brittney going into great detail at the back of the book about what her intentions were with this story. And it’s not until after you’ve finished the story part of the book and get to those author’s notes, is where the two halves become one, I believe completing the narrative. That’s not to say the story doesn’t have a logical conclusion, it does, it’s just when you really understand Brittney’s aims, the entire experience becomes that much more vibrant, and the message becomes that much more vital. If you’re a fan of cover-to-cover reading like I am, The Cost of Knowing is one of the best this year.
What would you do if you could see the future? And what if that future was filled with pain, even the untimely death of a loved one? For the book’s main character, Alex Rufus, this isn’t conjectural, its reality, and is understandably the source of a great deal of anxiety. I would even go so far as to say his unwanted premonitions have created a type of reverse Haphephobia, he gets panic attacks at even the thought of touching anything, and that includes his loved ones.
These are difficult questions to answer, even in the hypothetical, and Brittney does a marvelous job balancing both the tactile aspects of this story with the surreal. Depicting Alex’s dreamlike states so convincingly that you’ll have no problem at all the buying the cogency and virtue of the book’s abstract speculative leanings. It helps that the underpinnings of the book, a real-world look at systematic racism, is airtight.
As someone who experiences bouts of anxiety, I could relate with Alex, up to a certain point. But my “isms” aren’t comparable because I can’t imagine not wanting to touch ANYTHING for fear of seeing something awful, that’s a curse, not a gift. And this is what Alex’s daily life is consumed with. Brittney’s writing really shines bright here as we are given access to his stream of consciousness, to the point where you almost can’t help feeling bad for the guy. And because of this, by the time the book starts to reveal certain important facts that change the trajectory, you’re firmly behind Alex’s decision-making process, and how those choices deeply affect his relationships, both past, present, and future.
The contemporary social commentary juxtaposes the ancestral root magic pieces seamlessly but more importantly, with an obvious impetus. If Brittney wants you to understand anything, it’s that Black men and Black boys are dying at the hands of white people, have for a long, and will continue to do so. Above all else, that’s want she wants you to take away from this story, as entertaining as it is. Because while reflecting so much of what we see every day on the news, Brittney is also a storyteller, a protestor yes, but a creative one, nonetheless. And for that reason, while I would definitely stop short of saying The Cost of Knowing is a manifesto or a call-to-arms, the message is very loud and very clear.
Her knives are sharpest when she’s able to mix and match racial tensions and the issues facing the Black community with the book’s dreamlike elements. And in those sometimes-long character moments where Alex is interacting with those around him, all the while having an internal conversation with himself, it’s just really great prose on her part.
Brittney supports Alex with a fine cast of characters but none more important than his Aunt Mackie, who had taken over the parenting of him and his brother Isaiah. She’s successful, strong-willed, and caring, and most of all, resilient, and she understands just as much as anyone that the color of your skin, especially if it’s a shade of melanin, can decide your future. And while she mostly disappears in the third act, she’s there when it counts the most, when Alex needs her the most.
The world building aspect for this contemporary tale comes in the form of a sort of lensing, or how through a Black lens the reality of a modern-day Black America is revealed to a generally uninformed white reader. The Black (or most any BIPOC) experience is unique and therefore requires Brittney to present to us in detail that distinction. We’re taking micro steps towards things getting better, but in a country where “white” has been purposefully and systematically culturally dominant, for many still, the Black experience is unfamiliar to them. Along with writers Bethany C. Morrow, J. Elle, and Tracy Deonn, Brittney is helping us become more empathetic as a society by introducing us to a people who have felt the world has passed them by, and we’ve done almost nothing to stop it.
I’ll admit that The Cost of Knowing took a little bit to get going for me personally but by the second act I was completely invested in the story and the characters. I realize that’s a very generic statement that could be applied to most any reading experience, but aside from what’s in the promotional language, the less I say the better. But for me, each act just got better and better with Brittney saving the best for last, including a wonderful little epilogue that brings things full circle.
I’ve left out most of the book because this is meant to be a non-spoiler review, and I think it’s best left that way. In the end, you should leave The Cost of Knowing with a sense of hope, and not as an acrimonious emotion that won’t ever leave you alone no matter how hard you try. But as an aspirational or optimistic approach to living a life that is valuable where your self-worth isn’t determined by skin color or knowing the future, but by your actions in the present.
Wouldn’t that be nice?
The Cost of Knowing is out now, click HERE to order a copy today!