The narrator tells us that she knows "that woman," as though Violet is walking along the street before us. The narrator also knows her husband and goes on to give an encapsulated summary of the couple's tale: the husband fell in love with an eighteen-year-old girl, went mad with his love for her and then shot her. Violet appeared at the young girl's funeral and slashed the face of the dead body with a knife before being thrown out of the church. No one ever prosecuted Violet's husband, Joe Trace, for shooting his young lover. The girl's aunt knew that hiring cops was not worth it because Joe cried every day in grief and was already repentant. Violet was the topic of conversation at a meeting of the local women's club but the ladies decided against giving her financial assistance after the scene she caused at the funeral. Furthermore, she had gone on to get herself a boyfriend in an attempt to get revenge for her husband's affair but this tactic didn't seem to work. Joe sat around the house listless and sullen so Violet tried instead to regain his love. However, she could not break through their embittered silences.
Finally Violet decides to find out more about her husband's dead lover. She haunts the young girl's schools, asking her teachers about their former student, and learns to imitate the girl's favorite dance moves. She even gets her hands on a photo of the girl. Violet and her husband often stare at the photo in silent bewilderment.
Violet's attacked Dorcas's corpse on the third day of January in 1926. That year was cold and snowy, eight years after the 1919 armistice that sent so many victorious soldiers home. Women in the neighborhood of Violet's Lenox Avenue apartment check on their friends to see if everyone has adequate supplies and they send their husbands to search for open stores with long lists for kerosene, soap and other provisions. During nights that winter, Violet and Joe wake up in turns to go to the living room and stare at the photo of Joe's dead lover, Dorcas. Violet is a hairdresser so while Joe mopes around the house, missing workdays, she goes to the homes of neighborhood women to make some money. She becomes increasingly obsessed with the idea of Dorcas and has imagined conversations with the young girl. Filling her day with hair appointments and household chores, Violet seeks to stave off her sadness. Even before the incident with Dorcas, Violet has had a history of bizarre public behavior. One day she sat herself in the middle of the street and would not budge until some bystanders helped her to a nearby stoop. Another time, she walked off with an infant whom she was asked to watch for a moment. When she was younger she was snappy and confident but over the years she found herself slipping into a quiet sadness, except for times when her wayward mouth led her to speak nonsense. Joe is first annoyed and then depressed by the change in his wife. The novel is made up of ten sections that have no numbered divisions or chapter headings but follow each other with unequal lengths and pick up the story at unexpected places in the narrative track. This whole first "chapter" focuses on what happened with Violet in the months after she slashed Dorcas's face and also reflects more generally on living in New York and what it is like to be a woman.
The opening word of the novel, "sth," introduces the reader to the colloquial narrative voice that will recount the whole story, which tells the tale of Violet and Joe as though confiding in a friend. Our narrator speaks casually and uses idiomatic expressions and slang phrases, thereby suggesting an atmosphere where stories and urban lore are swapped frequently. The very first paragraph tells the story of Joe and Violet in abbreviated form. The rest of the novel will go on to flesh out the tale and lead the reader backwards and forwards in time and in and out of the consciousness of key players. The narrator's assertion, "I know that woman," and later, "Know her husband too" is significant because it demonstrates that the narrative voice that hovers over the plot is a part of this community and has witnessed many of the events. Further, it is apparent from the connection between the narrator and Violet that the story is immediate and contemporary for the reader.
Images of birds, flight, and hunting crowd the first few paragraphs of the book. When Violet runs back home from Dorcas's church her traces are covered up in the snow and the hunt to comprehend her personality and identity begins with the narrator's quest to understand what has happened to this couple.
An in-depth description of the City following on the heels of a description of Violet suggests that New York City itself is a central character in the plot. A locus of intense love and violence, the city is described with ominous depictions of light cutting through buildings like razors. Further, the narrator's language reflects the pulse of the Harlem Renaissance with its jazz music, dancing, and poetic innovation. A feeling of optimism pervades the narrator's description of the City's black community, but there is also a feeling of imminent danger and the need to heed patterns and designs.