Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid

Though I read Caribbean-American author Jamaica Kincaid a long time before encountering the Italian author Elena Ferrante, reading Lucy made me aware of a similarity in their characters, in their holding nothing back, allowing even the darkest thoughts to arise, unfiltered stream of consciousness narratives of moments that challenge the reader. They are confronting in their truth-telling and demand to be read beyond the surface.

There is no alluding to, there is cold, hard, observant reality and with Lucy’s arrival to a new country, there is the stark contrast of perspectives between her and those she encounters, that speak to their historical context and how they continue to play out in the present.

Review

Jamaica Kincaid coming of age novel LucyLucy is a 19 year old woman who has left her home in the West Indies and come to America to be an au pair for a family of four young children. The book is set over one year, her experience as a new, young immigrant.

It is both an escape and an adventure for Lucy, to have left everything behind and to strike out on her own independently; she reinforces that feeling in her refusal to open weekly letters from her mother. She does however often occupy her thoughts, moving between anger, resentment, longing and regret.

Lucy quickly develops a close relationship with Mariah reinforcing the complexity of the mother-daughter bond.

The times I loved Mariah it was because she reminded me of my mother. The times that I did not love Mariah it was because she reminded me of my mother.

She is surprised when she experiences homesickness for the first time.

I did not know that the sun could shine and the air remain cold; no one had ever told me. What a feeling that was! How can I explain? Something I had always known – the way I knew my skin was the colour brown of a nut rubbed repeatedly with a soft cloth, or the way I knew my own name – something I took completely for granted, “the sun is shining, the air is warm,” was not so.

Having never understood and had impatience for characters in books who yearn for home, she discovers a rising and  unwelcome longing for all she had willingly left behind. Though her words of home and family are often bitter, she experiences a reluctant and surprising feeling of loss.

Oh, I had imagined that with my one swift act – leaving home and coming to this new place – I could leave behind me, as if it were an old garment never to be worn again, my sad thoughts, my sad feelings, and my discontent with life in general as it presented itself to me.

She replaces the discontent of life in her home and country, with a new melancholy, as she discovers what it feels like to be an outsider, an immigrant.

A Daffodil Isn’t Always A Symbol of Joy

One morning Mariah speaks to her of the arrival of spring, of how it made her feel glad to be alive.

She said the word “spring” as if spring were a close friend, a friend who dared to go away for a long time and would soon appear for their passionate reunion. She said “Have you ever seen daffodils pushing their way up out of the ground?

Lucy thought:

So Mariah is made to feel alive by some flowers bending in the breeze. How does a person get to be that way?

Lucy Jamaica Kincaid daffodils symbol colonialism

Photo by eberhard grossgasteiger on Pexels.com

She remembers being forced to memorise and recite a poem when she was ten years old (at Queen Victoria Girl’s School), the praise she’d received afterwards and the nightmare of being chased by daffodils she’d had that evening.

I was then at the height of my two-facedness: that is, outside I seemed one way, inside I was another; outside false, inside true. And so I made pleasant little noises that showed both modesty and appreciation, but inside I was making a vow to erase from my mind, line by line, every word of that poem.

She recounts the dream memory in anger to Mariah. In a park a few days later they come across a swathe of flowers under a tree that Lucy doesn’t recognise but is filled with the desire to crush and kill.

Mariah said, “These are daffodils. I’m sorry about the poem, but I’m hoping you’ll find them lovely all the same.”

The flowers represent the disconnect between them, the presentation of something as beautiful that recalls the deep-seated, long reaching tentacles of imperial injustice, and Mariah’s colonial-like suggestion, further pressing Lucy to see the world as she does. Lucy reminds Mariah of her humiliating experience, the long poem about flowers she would not see in real life until she was nineteen, and feels guilty in her response.

I felt sorry that I had cast her beloved daffodils in a scene she had never considered, a scene of conquered and conquests; a scene of brutes masquerading as angels and angels portrayed as brutes…It wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t my fault. But nothing could change the fact that where she saw beautiful flowers I saw sorrow and bitterness. The same thing could cause us to shed tears, but those tears would not taste the same.

A Clash of Cultures – Our Circumstances Develop Our Perceptions

Though the family provide her comfortable means to enter this new world, she mock-marvels at how these people came to be the way are, noticing and judging the way they act, the things they say, seeing their similarity to all humanity (in her experience), observing the naivety of privilege, in thinking they might be exempt from certain tragic situations,  expressing shock at circumstances Lucy considers normal.

Mariah did not know that Lewis  was not in love with her anymore. It was not the sort of thing she could imagine. She could imagine the demise of the fowl of the air, fish in the sea, mankind itself, but not that the only man she had ever loved would no longer love her.

It is a year that changes her further, as she comes to know this new country, makes a new friend or two and begins to see herself as the woman other people see and pursues that self to meet a kind of aloof desire.

Kincaid’s biting prose is sublime, never what you expect, she delights in the unfiltered version of humanity and delivers many poignant, ironic and thought provoking insights along the way. Brilliant.

The Author, Jamaica Kincaid

Lucy Jamaica Kincaid review

Jamaica Kincaid was born Elaine Potter Richardson in the capital city of St. John’s, Antigua in 1949.  Antigua is a small island in the West Indies (a region of the Caribbean basin), colonised by the British in 1632 that became independent in 1981.

Her mother was from Dominica and her biological father, a West Indian chauffeur, whom she didn’t meet until her thirties.  Kincaid was an only child until she was nine, when the first of her three brothers was born.

Until then she’d had the sole attention of her mother so life changed dramatically thereafter. At 17 she left for America and did not return to Antigua for 20 years, though it resonated deep within her creativity.

She is currently Professor of African and African-American Studies at Harvard University, with a focus on creative writing and African American writers.

In November 2020, UK publisher Picador won a four way auction to publish 10 books (in 2022 & 2023) by Jamaica Kincaid, the titles to be released are her novels Annie John, The Autobiography of My Mother, Lucy, Mr Potter and her most recent novel, See Now Then; the non-fiction works Talk Stories and My Brother; two books on gardening, My Garden Book and Among Flowers; and the short-story collection At the Bottom of the River.

Further Reading

My review of The Autobiography of My Mother – my Outstanding Read of 2015

My review of Tsitsi Dangarembga’s This Mournable Body – a post-colonial novel set in Zimbabwe

My Review of The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante

New Yorker Article: The Disturbances of the Garden: In the garden, one performs the act of possessing by Jamaica Kincaid, August 31, 2020

 

Love After Love by Ingrid Persaud

As soon as I saw that there was a book out called Love After Love, I was curious, then seeing it was written by a UK based Trinidadian author, I knew it was no coincidence.

Derek Alcott, Poet

Trinidad Literature Costa PrizeLove After Love is the title of one of my favourite poems by Derek Walcott (1930-2017) of St Lucia in the West Indies. A poet and playwright, he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1992. He moved to Trinidad after graduation when he was 23, having already published two volumes of poetry by the age of 19.

I first encountered his poem in the front of Audrey Niffennegger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife. It is a poem that elicits different feelings from readers, depending perhaps on when in their lives it is encountered; some relate it to rediscovering one’s cultural identity, others to grief, a broken heart or to the freedom of finding one’s true purpose.

For me it evokes a feeling of a partial awakening of consciousness, the discovery that one is able to self-nourish and expend love and energy inward, rather than expressing it or looking for it externally. It represents a form of liberation and freedom, a soul awakening, leading.

I was curious to see how Ingrid Persaud would write a story with such a bold and beautiful reference.  How would this story encapsulate the essence of that wonderful poem I wondered, and imagine if it succeeded.

Winner of Costa Book Award 2020, First Novel

Love After Love Ingrid Persaud Love After Love was shortlisted for the popular Costa Book Awards (annual literary awards recognising English-language books by writers based in Britain and Ireland) in the First Novel category.

I was quietly confident it would win this category, as I’ve followed category judge and highly valued reader/blogger Eric Anderson of The Lonesome Reader for years and I knew how much he loved this novel (it was in his Top 10 of 2020). It did win and the novel, The Mermaid of Black Conch: A Love Story by Monique Roffey also set in the Caribbean won the Novel Award.

Ingrid Persaud won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize in 2017 and the BBC Short Story Award in 2018. An author I’m sure we’re going to be reading more of in future.

Review

From the short opening Betty chapter I was riveted. Vivid, charged and terrifying, I felt like my heart was in my throat with my hand gripping it. And then, just as quickly, an immense relief followed it.

Costa Book Awards 2020 Love After Love Derek Walcott poemBy page seven there is a broken arm and a funeral as I gasp “Thank goodness” for I couldn’t bear to spend more time in the presence of Betty’s volatile husband Sunil. After five pages of tension-filled dialogue, the book becomes unputdownable.

In that opening chapter we read of a significant turning point in Betty’s life. There will be a further turning point later relating to the events of that day, one that the second half of the book and its characters will struggle with.

The book is structured into chapters told from the perspective of the three main characters, Betty, Solo and soon to become boarder Mr Chetan, Betty’s work colleague who calls her Mrs Ramdin, despite her insistence that he use her first name. The dialogue is written in the unique island way of speaking, a Trinidadian dialect, that I imagine is even more colourful to listen to on audio. It brings the text alive.

In Mr Chetan’s opening chapter he is late for work, waiting to catch a maxi taxi and getting more and more stressed as none are passing to flag down. He is a little mortified to see Mrs Ramdin’s car slowing down, instructing him to jump in quick, they’re holding up traffic.

Nothing’s wrong with Mrs Ramdin. She’s a little talkative. And you can see the girl she was in her big dark eyes and simple shoulder length hair. I just prefer not to be too friend friend with people in the main office. Next thing the whole of town all up in your business. I know she so so. Good morning, how you going, but never any big conversation.

That unexpected interaction lead to his learning she was looking for a lodger, and if he knew anyone suitable. Though he doesn’t present himself as a candidate then, because he knows she would prefer a woman, later he seeks her out and by the weekend is moving in.

The delightful, yet lost Mr Chetan is a sensitively drawn character, living in a country fearful of being himself, yet finds ways to make the lives of those around him better. Cast out from his own, he is everyone’s friend.

In the first half of the book we get to know these brilliantly portrayed characters, the new routines and life they create for themselves as a kind of family, the laughs, the loves, the conversations, the creation of a bond they’re hardly aware of as it entwines their lives together. Until the hunger to create a life for themselves results in both Solo and Mr Chetan moving away. All three of them will undertake an inner journey of discovery.

Betty is distraught. Solo takes such a tough line against his mother once he has left, too young to know what preceded him, she experiences the mother’s dilemma of not wishing to cast her sons father as a villain, while suffering the sons judgement of her, having cast her as the ‘baddie’ instead.

I must be call Solo a hundred times but he not answering. I don’t know if to stop calling or what to do. He have age so he could do what he want. I must accept that. You make your children, look after them and hope for the best. But oh gosh, man. Any fool knows that reaching adult age is not the same as having the sense and the experience. And if anybody needs some good sense knocked into them it’s that boy and his hard head. Who going to help him up there? Hari?

Solo is angry and not in the mood to listen, nor realises what he has lost in leaving. Betty’s calls go unanswered. She writes letters instead and we hear her thoughts, we hear his and we experience the frustration of a mother-son situation that endures.

Ingrid Persaud captures brilliantly the dynamic of both, the stubborn independence of the son, his inner pain and the torturous way he deals with it – hides it – and the perseverance of his mother, never giving up on her son, consistent in her love of him. Solo’s struggles are also external, the flip side of the American dream, the reality of creating a new life alone, where everything is unfamiliar and one doesn’t know who to trust, the shame that prevents a young man from admitting to his mother that he isn’t okay.

And Mr Chetan, always there for them both, with his quietly spoken, sound advice and his complex life.

Totally engaging characters and story line all the way through, sad to have left them all behind.

Highly recommend!

Further Reading

Review, The Washington Post: ‘Love After Love’ reminds readers why we go to books in search of answers to life’s great questions by Naomi Jackson

My Review: Cereus Blooms at Night by Shani Mootoo

L O V E   A F T E R   L O V E
The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome, and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.
love after love Ingrid Persaud Costa Book Awards

I, Tituba Black Witch of Salem by Maryse Condé tr. Richard Philcox

A Maryse Condé FanGirl Moment

I Tituba Black Witch of Salem Maryse Conde

When I opened I, Tituba to begin reading, on the first page there was a quote from the author Maryse Condé that read:

Tituba and I lived for a year on the closest of terms.
During our endless conversations she told me things she had confided to nobody else.

It gave me such a good feeling to read that, knowing that Condé was doing here, what she did in Victoire: My Mother’s Mother, when the grandmother she’d never met, awakened her from her dreams, to chastise her from the corner of the room.

Sometimes I would wake up at night and see her sitting in a corner of the room, like a reproach, so different to what I had become.

‘What are you doing running around from Segu to Japan to South Africa? What’s the point of all these travels? Can’t you realise that the only journey that counts is discovering your inner self? That’s the only thing that matters. What are you waiting for to take an interest in me?’ she seemed to be telling me.

But that book wasn’t published until 20 years after Condé was listening to Tituba tell her story.

A Caribbean Writer Returns

I, Tituba is the first novel written after Segu and The Children of Segu, historical masterpieces that inform, disrupt and provoke, however the initial reaction was such that Maryse Condé declared she would never write about Africa again.

Tituba came to me or I came to her at a period of my life when really I wanted to turn toward the Caribbean and start writing about the Caribbean.

Who was Tituba?

Tituba existed, she was accused and ultimately set free, however, despite the shelves of history books about the Salem witch trials, there is little factual information about her, who she was, who freed her, or her life after release from prison.

I felt this eclipse of Tituba’s life was completely unjust. I felt a strong solidarity with her, and I wanted to offer her her revenge by inventing a life such as she might perhaps have wished it to be told.

If we look for her story in the history of Salem, it isn’t there. Condé too, looked for her history in the colonization of the continent and found silences, omissions, distortions, fabrications and fleeting, enigmatic insinuations. And so she wrote this novel.

Review

On a ship sailing for Barbados, young Abena was raped by an English sailor, then sold to a planter along with two male slaves. She was employed in the household until the pregnancy discovered whereupon she was banished to the cabin of a male slave Yao. Tituba was born.

In a short reprieve, they find comfort in each other’s company and Tituba would adored by a man more father to her than any other. The joy that now lightened Abena’s world was seen by the master and desired for himself. She struck back, died for it, and for his concubine’s crime, Yao was sold.

Driven off the plantation, Tituba was taken in by Mama Yaya; still grieving for two sons, she had cultivated the ability to communicate with the invisible.

People were afraid of her, but they came from far and wide because of her powers.

Mama Yaya taught her everything, in the ways of her people:

Mama Yaya initiated me into the powers of knowledge. The dead only die if they die in our hearts. They live on if we cherish them and honour their memory, if we place their favourite delicacies in life on their graves, and if we kneel down regularly to commune with them.

Ann Petry Tituba Salem Witch TrialsAnd so Tituba is given a past, skills and knowledge and might have remained in that life, had she not grown into a young woman with desires herself and fallen for the man who would become her husband John Indian.

He belonged to Susanna Endicott who I encountered in the memorable opening scene of Ann Petry’s Tituba of Salem Village.

After a short period in that household where John had lived most of his life, things deteriorated and in an act of revenge the mistress sold them both to the frightening Reverend Samuel Parris, who sailed for the Bay Colony the very next day.

From Island Life to Boston, Massachusetts

In Boston, with the mistress unwell in a room upstairs, Tituba spends time with the daughter Betsey and orphaned niece Abigail, who makes trouble that spreads like a contagion to other young girls in the community, as they fall prey to strange fits and mass hysteria.

I also recognized Abigail and Betsey’s companions in their dangerous games, those young girls whose eyes were shining with excitement. They were dying to roll on the ground too and to attract everybody’s attention.

And so the bad behaviours of girls given credence, turn into accusations of witchcraft against Tituba and others, they are jailed and many lose their lives, until the Govener writes to London for advice on legal proceedings concerning witchcraft resulting in a general pardon and Tituba is condemned to live.

Prison costs mean she can only leave if someone pays and a man with nine children who has lost his wife claims her. And it is through this relation that she will gain her freedom.

Freedom At What Price

If the first part is written from compassion, yet seeking revenge, the second part initially seems strange and challenges the reader, in its use of parody. I found it difficult to accept, the reader isn’t given the satisfaction of a gratifying ending, yet reading past the novel into the essay and interview at the end of the book, I’m confronted with my own subconscious bias and lack of understanding, in a clever and deliberate intervention by the author.

And so Tituba is granted her revenge. We are all complicit.

Reading the book and thinking about it after reading the interview resulted in a deeper reading experience and consideration. My feeling while reading was heightened by having read Ann Petry’s sympathetic version first, Condé takes a different approach, reckoning with the past.

I suggest that though Petry’s version was written 30 years before, it might be better to read her more optimistic version last.

What Is it About Witchcraft?

Magic witchcraft spells Tituba Isobel GowdieLike Condé, who said she knew nothing of witchcraft, I have decided to read a contemporary book next, published in 2020, to see what’s going on in the world of witchcraft today.

Next up A Spell in the Wild: A Year (and Six Centuries) of Magic by Alice Tarbuck.

Further Reading

Paper: Hesitating Between Irony and the Desire to Be Serious in I, Tituba by Sarah Barbour, Wake Forest University

 

Crossing the Mangrove by Maryse Condé (1995)

translated (from French) by Richard Philcox.

A Favourite Author

Maryse Conde Crossing the Mangrove WIT MonthMaryse Condé is one of my favourite authors and I’ve been slowly working my way through her books since she was nominated for the Booker International Prize in 2015, back when it was held every two years, for an author’s lifetime works.

I started with vignettes from her childhood, then moved on to a novel about her grandmother whom she’d never met, then her masterpiece of historical fiction Segu, her own favourite The Story of the Cannibal Woman, A Season in Rihata and now this very Caribbean novel Crossing the Mangrove, which I absolutely loved. Links to my reviews below.

This is almost a form of noir novel; a death provides the catalyst to revealing an island society, portraying all it diversity and colour, its social good and evil – poverty, discrimination and exploitation, and rather than seek a tidy resolution of that death, it demonstrates the folly of that way of thinking, creating instead, a thought-provoking insight into a multi-layered, multi-ethnic mix of minds and bodies, in their states of love, bliss, paranoia, anxiety and confusion.

It is such a great read, I had to force myself to pause halfway in order to savour it. I can imagine rereading it, it’s such a multilayered novel, that can be read for pure entertainment value or thought about more deeply in how it attempts through exquisite storytelling and characterisation, to lay bare the complexity of such a diverse community, it’s impossible to keep up with who is who is what from where, demonstrating how farcical that is anyway and yet nearly everyone contributes to it, the labelling, the judgements, the superiority and inferiority complexes. Brilliant.

“Life’s problems are like trees. We see the trunk, we see the branches and the leaves. But we can’t see the roots, hidden deep down under the ground. And yet it’s their shape and nature and how far they dig into the slimy humus to search for water that we need to know. Then perhaps we would understand.”

Can You Cross A Mangrove?

Crossing the Mangrove Maryse Condé

Mangrove of Sainte Rose, Guadeloupe

The trigger for all of this, in a novel where every chapter takes the perspective of a different character, is the wake of a man found dead in the mangrove. No one really knew Francis Sancher but everyone had had an encounter with him and there were rumours aplenty.

“Nobody ever understands, Madame Ramsaran. Everyone is afraid of understanding. Take me, for instance. As soon as I tried to understand, to ask for an explanation for all those corpses, all that blood, they called me every name under the sun. As soon as I refused to go along with the slogans, they kept a serious eye on me. Nothing is more dangerous than a man who tries to understand.”

I don’t know about the mangroves in Guadeloupe, but recalling the mangrove swamp from a biology field trip at school, they are incredibly difficult to navigate, like a natural defence system, with spiky roots sticking up out of the water, preventing a way forward. They become a tangled array of wet and slimy roots, attracting many species of bugs, insects and critters and are found in locations where salt water and fresh water mix, a buffer between land and sea.  An apt metaphor for navigating a life, for understanding a complex society.

Stories in his Wake

We come to know more about this intriguing stranger who came to Rivière au Sel expecting to die, we learn who cultivated a desire for that to happen, who fell for his charm, a variety of voices that convey the life stories of this diverse group of villagers – young and old, men and women, siblings and parents, illiterates and intellectual elites, peasants and upper class Creoles, those who belong and those who would always be considered outsiders.

Crossing the Mangrove Maryse Condé

Maryse Condé

The multiplicity of voices, narrated through nineteen characters attendant at the wake, creates a portrait of the social, cultural, political, linguistic, intellectual and economic diversity of this Caribbean island society, complete with desire, unrequited love, arranged marriage, jealousy, disappointment, bitterness, greed, exploitation, revenge, racism, classism, joy and hilarity.

“I would say you are a man of great wisdom!” I murmured.

He smiled.

“Wisdom? I wouldn’t say that. Rather that I tried to untangle the skeins of life.”

The dead man is only given voice through those attending his wake, like the author who is given voice through her characters.

The quote above reminds me of all the narratives of Maryse Condé, of her life, her research including the all important oral histories and her own insatiable appetite for “untangling the skeins of life”, presenting them to us through her essays and novels. She truly is a magical and gifted writer, and in this novel she returns to a landscape closer to home, evoking it through this collection of characters beautifully.

“Now Francis Sancher is dead. But he alone has come to an end. The rest of us are alive and continue to live as we’ve always done. Without getting along together. Without liking ourselves. Without sharing anything. The night is waging war and grappling with the shutters. Soon, however, it will surrender to the day and every rooster will crow its defeat. The banana trees, the cabins and the slopes of the mountain will gradually float to the surface of the shadows and prepare to confront the dazzling light of day. We shall greet the new face of tomorrow and I shall say to this daughter of mine:

“I gave birth to you, but I misloved you. I neglected to help you flower and you grew stunted. It’s not too late for our eyes to meet and our hands to touch. Give me your forgiveness.”

In 2018 Maryse Condé was declared the winner of the Alternative Nobel Prize for Literature.

Further Reading

Tales From the Heart: True Stories From My Childhood

Victoire: My Mother’s Mother

Segu

The Story of the Cannibal Woman

A Season in Rihata

The Story of the Cannibal Woman by Maryse Condé, tr. Richard Philcox #WITMonth

Although she recommends you start with her book of essays Tales from The Heart: True Stories from My Childhood about growing up the youngest of eight children in a black bourgeois family in Guadeloupe, Maryse Condé cited The Story of the Cannibal Woman as her personal favourite of her works at a discussion I attended at our local library last year. It was translated by her husband Richard Philcox.

It was interesting to read this novel so soon after Yewande Omotoso’s The Woman Next Door, given certain points in common, both placing a black Caribbean woman in South Africa and observing her relations with others around her, in the post-apartheid context, it made me wonder if she had been aware of Condé’s earlier work.

As The Story of the Cannibal Woman opens, we learn Rosélie is a 50-year-old recent widow, living alone, without family connections and few friends in Cape Town, South Africa, after the brutal murder of her white British husband, a retired university professor, who nipped out after midnight one evening, allegedly to buy cigarettes and never returned home.

The police suspect it wasn’t a random encounter, something Rosélie refuses initially to acknowledge, completely ignoring her husbands study, a room she rarely ever ventured into, one strangely she is even less inclined to now.

“Aren’t you going to return home?”

Home? If only I knew where home was.

Chance had it I was born in Guadeloupe. But nobody in my family is interested in me. Apart from that, I have lived in France. A man took me to Africa, then left me. Another took me to the United States, then brought me to Africa, and he too left me stranded, this time in Cape Town. Oh, I forgot I’ve also lived in Japan. That makes for a fine charade, doesn’t it? No, my country was Stephen. I shall stay wherever he is.

Left alone without an income to support her (they’d never married though fortunately the house was in both their names), and having made only half-hearted attempts to exhibit her paintings, even then via the efforts of others willing her to succeed, rather than by her own initiative, she decides to offer her services and a healer/clairvoyant.

It is through these occasional appointments with clients that she encounters different members of the local population and the variety of issues confronting them, such as the former trade unionist, who’d languished for years in prison on Robben Island, now a tourist guide for the masses wishing to see where Nelson Mandela had been interned, “revisiting his abuse and torture day after day, describing it down to the last detail to the inquisitive hordes in an endeavour to satisfy their curiosity, the poor guy was losing his head”

10.00am, Patient No. 7, David Fagwela, Age: 73, Particularity: one of the few South African clients, Profession: retired miner

It is an intriguing dual mystery, the ongoing investigation and gradual uncovering of the motive behind the crime plays out at the same time as the intrigue mounts regarding the widow’s reluctance confront the truth about her husband, whose death has loosened the tongues of people close to her, they now freely express their disapproval of him and the way they perceive he treated Rosélie. She appears to be shocked by these revelations and thus retraces her memories of their lives together in London, New York, Tokyo and Cape Town.

It’s an astute medium through which to learn more of their back story, for in narrating those events Rosalie shares how she interpreted events, but the reader will create their own impression and begin to see the abyss between her perspective, Stephen’s and that of their friends.

The couple go on a safari soon after arriving in South Africa, Rosélie was terrified.

What did frighten her were the men. White men. Guides, game wardens, local visitors, foreign tourists. All wearing boots and safari hats, sporting double-barrelled guns, playing in a Western without a hint of a bison or an Indian now massacred or defeated, herded toothless into their reservations. Stephen, on the contrary loved dressing up in a bush jacket and canvas shorts in camouflage, a flask clipped to his waist and sunglasses perched on his nose.

“You don’t know how to enjoy yourself,” he reprimanded her, manly grabbing the wheel of the Land Rover.

Not her fault if she suffered from the complex of a victim and identified with those who are hunted.

At the same time Rosalie is going through her crisis, there is a well publicised case in the newspapers of a woman named Fiela, who allegedly murdered her husband. In court she refuses to speak, the public begin to turn against her, some calling her a witch, others a cannibal. The police officer on Stephen’s case wonders aloud whether she might open up to Rosalie, as many of her patients do. Rosalie has imaginary conversations with Fiela, the one personality to whom she feels able to ask questions (albeit in her dreams), that she can not utter to anyone else:

“Fiela, you’ve settled into my thoughts and dreams. No bother at all. As discreet as an alter ego. You hide behind everything I do, invisible, like the silk lining of a doublet. You must have been like me, a solitary child, a taciturn teenager….Fiela,  what have they got against him? He has always been by my side.Thoughtful.Considerate. Patient to my moods…Fiela, he always forgave me, I who was not beyond reproach, who, I confess, had been unfaithful before.”

Although there was the allegation against Fiela, this story wasn’t about her, it is about Rosélie, so after reading I didn’t understand the reference to the cannibal woman, so I looked it up to see what its symbolic meaning was and discovered that it is related to post colonisation and the loss of cultural memory, this post colonial world inevitably leading to a sense of spiritual devastation, it has even become in television series today, a symbol of self-awakening.

Rosalie is far from her roots and her culture and took shelter with a man, who further alienated her from that, even though he was relatively kind to her. His death has forced her to confront herself.

Maryse Condé

I thought this book was brilliant, it can be read superficially as a plot driven novel, or at a deeper analytical level, by looking at an outside view of post apartheid South Africa through the eyes of a bi-cultural, biracial couple, neither of whom come from there.

It’s techniques with flashbacks to fill in the story are typical of the Caribbean style which Maryse Condé does to great effect as are the dream sequences, where her subconscious self expresses itself openly, illuminating the reader. I understand why it is her favourite, she has accomplished a grand feat of literature in this one thrilling novel.

“The author demonstrates how one’s entire sense of self gets swallowed up by trauma and its dislocating aftermath.” – New York Times

Highly Recommended!

My Previous Reviews of Maryse Condé’s work:

Tales From the Heart: Stories From My Childhood

Victoire: My Mother’s Mother

Segu

A Season in Rihata

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Cereus Blooms at Night by Shani Mootoo

 Cereus Blooms at Night is the partially told story of one woman’s life, beginning when she is admitted to an alms house, suspected of having murdered her father and slowly unravelling back to the turning points, the highs and lows which brought her to be in the state she is in on arrival.

cereusIt is a novel narrated in parts, each part focusing on a character(s) who were influential in her life, including the young man who never knew her until this day, the one who became her confidant, perhaps the first man she ever trusted, after all that had passed beforehand. Much of it is told as Mala slips into memories of herself as child, reliving it.

It is set on the fictional Caribbean island of Lantanacamara, in a town called Paradise, the Ramchandin patriarch arriving there from India, trading a life of indentured servitude for little more than the promise of a karmic upgrade for his son, Chandin, who would be taken under the wing of the Reverend in the hope of improving the family prospects.

The young male nurse, Tyler accepted his first job in the alms house and although well-trained and qualified, his employers had yet to extend their generosity towards giving him actual nursing duties. The arrival of the controversial patient Mala Ramchandin, provided him with the first opportunity to exercise his skills.

I hardly had opened my mouth to explain that Miss Ramchandin was too frail to inflict even a bad thought when Sister screamed at me for being insolent and blatantly disregarding her authority.

No one else wanted to go near her, she was bound and believed to be mad and dangerous. Tyler was delighted to be given the opportunity and responsibility and treated his patient with the same compassion he might have offered any patient given the chance. Sensing her distress, he acted to alleviate it regardless of instructions to do otherwise.

cereusAs Tyler gained her trust, Mala’s story is revealed to us through him and through the two visitors she received, who on her first day there, unable to see her, left a pot with a cutting of the fragrant night-blooming cereus plant, a gift that clearly delighted her, a symbol of fragrant, nurturing oblivion.

The novel is full of contrasts, moments of delight and anticipation alongside the growing recognition of impending horrors, abuse and neglect. It taunts the reader into a state of hope, as the potential for things to have been otherwise is so close at times, only for the illusion of escape to become shattered by the reality of a situation that holds tight to those who are caught in its web.

The novel is unique in its portrayal of characters whose sexual identity is unclear, exploring hybridity and sexual minorities within a cultural context, in an intriguing, accepting way.

By the time Ambrosia was five, her parents were embroiled in their marital problems to the exclusion of all else, including their child. They hardly noticed that their daughter was slowly transforming herself into their son.  Ambrose slept right through the month, undisturbed until the first Saturday of the next, and Elsie, hungry for a male in the house, went along with his (her) strong belief that he (she) was really and truly meant to be a boy. Else fully expected that he (she) would outgrow the foolishness soon enough.  But the child walked and ran and dressed and talked and tumbled and all but relieved himself so much like an authentic boy that Elsie soon apparently forgot she had ever given birth to a girl. And the father, in his few waking episodes, seemed not to remember that he had once fathered one.

Despite the harrowing nature of Mala’s experiences, the luminous storytelling and unique characters bring light to otherwise dark places, and show that perseverance and allowing space for love, can overcome all manner of tragedy.

I came across the author Shani Mootoo in my search for other women authors, writing in the Caribbean tradition, authors who may have lived and been educated elsewhere, but whose writing evokes a clear connection to roots from elsewhere. Mootoo was born in Ireland, raised in Trinidad and moved to Canada as a young adult.

Trinidad and Tobago literature is rooted in the oral storytelling of African slaves, the European literary roots of the French creoles and the religious and folk tales of the Indian indentured immigrants.

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James #ManBookerPrize

Brief HistoryMarlon James novel A Brief History of Seven Killings was the winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2015, a year that saw an exceptionally diverse array of novels long listed.

As a reminder, since it was nearly a year ago that this book won the prize, this was what Michael Wood, Chair of the judges, had to say about it:

‘This book is startling in its range of voices and registers, running from the patois of the street posse to The Book of Revelation. It is a representation of political times and places, from the CIA intervention in Jamaica to the early years of crack gangs in New York and Miami.

‘It is a crime novel that moves beyond the world of crime and takes us deep into a recent history we know far too little about. It moves at a terrific pace and will come to be seen as a classic of our times.’

It is a novel that was hailed as being exceptional in itself, much of it written in that Jamaican patois mentioned, via a litany of voices from the ganglands of the Jamaican ghetto.

I admit that it wasn’t exactly on my reading list, with its promise of violence, killing, drug related activities and dozens of characters, however the book was gifted to me by a visiting Professor, who had little to say about it, but was keen to know my thoughts. So I made it my #OneSummerChunkster and jumped right in, mind wide open.

It is difficult and almost seems inappropriate to rate this novel (I gave it 5 stars on Goodreads.com) in terms of appeal, as it is an incredibly written and unique work, with a huge amount of research that went into the writing and authenticity of its creation.

Marlon JamesI can’t say I loved it, it was a tough read in places and definitely not the kind of book I would normally choose nor the kind of film/TV series I would watch, but it is an awe-inspiring creation and for that I agree, it is indeed an amazing oeuvre and warrants the 5 stars, though as far as favourite books go or works I’d recommend, I hesitate and would say its not an experience I would choose to repeat often.

I was grateful for the list of characters up front, which I referred to often at the beginning of each chapter, as we are plunged straight into the multi-character narrative with its discordant musical tones, slice of life in the ghetto, the Singer (never referred to by name) not present, though always there in the greater awareness of them all. Life has little meaning and killing a mere rise above assault.

It must have been incredible to listen to the audio version as the individual character voices are so unique, it is the literary equivalent of reading a musical score for a symphony like you’ve never heard before, I am in awe that Marlon James succeeded in creating such a work, that balances so many threads of narrative, so many characters, the timeline, the Jamaican patois, the gangspeak, the violence, the framing of the story around the assassination attempt of that “Singer” who is never named, assumed to be Bob Marley. As Eileen Battersby, reviewer of The Irish Times put it so eloquently:

Reading Marlon’s prose is akin to injecting liquid fire into your brain.

It paints a dark, dangerous picture of ghetto life and the activities, interactions of drug dealers and their crews and the fear by those who are in any way touched or implicated in their actions. In a schizophrenic stream of consciousness narrative, gang members live their days in altered states of consciousness, paranoid, high, wanting to kill – in a frantic, dangerous other worldly horror.

Flicking between the narratives of CIA members, a young woman afraid of what she has witnessed, a journalist, all present leading up to the attempted shooting of the Singer. Surreal. It made me wonder at times if the author was in an altered state of consciousness while writing – it is some kind of trip!

I did have to push myself in parts to keep going, it’s brutal at times, and upon reaching halfway, I took the afternoon off to read The Rabbit House by Laura Alcoba.  But then the pace picked up again as Papa-Lo the don, and top members of a rival gang were about to be chucked into jail together in the hope they’d self destruct. James’s lulls never last and we are pulled back into the riveting storyline, following our favourites and steeling ourselves against spending time the company of those we know are going to detest.

Book of Night WomenI was left admiring the creation even if it wasn’t always a particularly enjoyable ride and as my comment made to another reader below shows, the beach was actually a great place to read it!

I feel like I’m reading a Jamaican symphony, a cacophony of words and sounds and emotions, not sure if it was the heat of the sun or the power of the book, but I had to keep putting it down to take a plunge into the cool ocean!

That said, I am intrigued and do intend to read Marlon James’s The Book of Night Women wondering how he handles a story with female characters.

Click Here to Buy A Novel by Marlon James at Book Depository!

A Season in Rihata by Maryse Condé (Guadeloupe) tr. Richard Philcox #WITMonth

Marysé Conde is a Guadeloupean writer I came across in 2015 when she was nominated for the Man Booker International Prize, at a time when it was a two yearly prize for a lifetime’s work.

It has now evolved into an annual prize split between the author and translator for a book translated into English that year and in 2016 it was awarded to Han Kang (South Korea) and Deborah Smith (translator) for the novel The Vegetarian.

Maryse Condé didn’t win the prize back in 2015, but was the author on the list who most appealed to me.

Since reading about her at that time, I followed her own recommendations in terms of what to read to be introduced to her work, starting with a collection of vignettes in Tales from the Heart: True Stories from my Childhood, then Victoire: My Mother’s Mother and finally, the grand masterpiece and novel she is most well-known for, especially in academic circles, as it is widely studied and recognised as an important work of historical fiction set in the African Kingdom during a significant period of change: Segu.

I’ve wanted to read more of her work, so tracked down a couple more books that have been translated into English and was fortunate enough to have listened to her speak at our local library earlier this year – though she lived in France for many years, she is now retired and has returned to her native Guadeloupe to live, though still active in literary circles.

A Season in Rihata – reviewSeason in Rihata

Zek and his Guadeloupean wife Marie-Hélène live in a small fictitious African town of Rihata, with their six children and another due any day. It is far from Paris where they met and lived in very different way and far removed from the kind of life Marie-Hélène’s remembers on the island home of her childhood.

Like all men of his ethnic group, Zek had been brought up with a kind of fear and contempt of woman – malevolent creatures whose dark instincts had to be mastered. Love had taken him by surprise. He had difficulty accepting the power Marie-Hélène held over him and was convinced that no other man except him had undergone such humiliation.

Neither are happy; Zek has never been able to get over the feeling of being looked down on by his father, even though he is long dead, and remains resentful of his younger brother Madou, who found favour without having to do anything and who was the cause of him having to relocate his family due to the unwanted attentions of his brother towards his wife.

Influenced by a father who made no pretence of his preferences, Madou had soon considered Zek as a person of limited ability and in all ways inferior; although this did not exclude a certain brotherly affection.

Now Madou is coming to Rihata, he is a political Minister coming to conduct negotiations, his presence causing many to feel uneasy, a disruption in the sleepy town where not much usually happens.

It is a novel of discontent, of the effects of selfish behaviour, which none are immune to or able to rise above. Contentedness is within their reach, but so is temptation and the effect of indulging it ricochets through all members of the extended family and the rulers of the country.

While it doesn’t reach the heights of her other work I’ve read, it’s a worthy contribution to her body of literature and I look forward to reading more.

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The Bridge of Beyond by Simone Schwarz-Bart tr. Barbara Bray #WITMonth

Bridge of BeyondAbsolutely brilliant, astonishing, loved it, one of my Top Reads of 2016 for sure.

Originally published in 1972 as Pluie et vent sur Télumée Miracle, The Bridge of Beyond is acknowledged as one of the masterpieces of Caribbean literature. It was republished in English in 2013 as an NYRB Classic, with an introduction by Jamaica Kincaid, beautifully translated by Barbara Bray, described as ‘an intoxicating tale of love and wonder, mothers and daughters, spiritual values and the grim legacy of slavery’.

Telumee is the last in a line of proud Lougandor women on the French Antillean island of Guadeloupe. It is a novel best left to speak for itself, as the many quotes from the novel that follow here illustrate, a work infused throughout with a vital and vibrant female energy, a force that empowers them to forge ahead, no matter the circumstances, one that will permeate the reader, instilling courage and awe at the language that creates this positive, intoxicating feeling.

In the first part we learn about her people, her mother Victory,

“a laundress, wearing out her wrists on flat stones in the rivers, and her linen emerged like new from under the heavy waxed irons”

her father, his life cut short in a fatal stabbing,

“Angebert, had led a reserved and silent existence, effacing himself so completely
that no one ever knew who it was died that day. Sometimes I wonder about him, ask myself what anyone so kind and gentle was doing in this world at all.”

the man who pulled her mother out of her grief, and out of her daughter’s life,

“The fact is that a mere nothing, a thought, a whim, a particle of dust can change the course of a life. If Haut-Colbi had not stopped in the village my little story would have been different.”

and her grandmother Toussine, ‘Queen Without a Name’, to whom her mother sent her to live.

“My mother’s reverence for Toussine was such I came to regard her as some mythical being not of this world, so that for me she was legendary even while still alive.”

Simone Schwarz-Bart

Simone Schwarz-Bart

Telumee narrates the story of her life, in small details, in melodic, incantatory prose that lures the reader in, consuming her story with great pleasure. Every change of home, village, or great journey takes them across the Bridge of Beyond, a symbol of change and the unknown, the other side.

As she passes through various stages of life, she is guided but never pressured by her grandmother, remembering her stories, her songs, her advice.

“My little ember”, she’d whisper, “if you ever get on a horse, keep good hold of the reins so that it’s not the horse that rides you.” And as I clung to her, breathing in her nutmeg smell, Queen Without a Name would sigh, caress me, and go on, distinctly, as if to engrave the words on my mind: “Behind one pain, there is another. Sorrow is a wave without end. But the horse mustn’t ride you, you must ride it.”

She will fall in love, leave to work in the kitchen of wealthy white family, build her own home, experience both profound happiness and the depths of despair, brush up against madness and find its cure, and always the reassuring presence of her grandmother.

“Sometimes old thoughts arose in me, shooting up like whirls of dust raised from the road by a herd of wild horses galloping by. The Grandmother to try to whistle up a wind for me, saying we should soon be going away, for the air in Fond-Zombi didn’t agree with my lungs now.”

As Jamaica Kincaid articulates well in the introduction, The Bridge of Beyond is not a conventional novel, and it never tries to be. It is a fluid, unveiling of a life, and a way of life, lived somewhere between a past that is not forgotten, that time of slavery lamented in the songs and felt in the bones, and a present that is a struggle and a joy to live, alongside nature, the landscape, the community and their traditions.

The cultural traditions and historical events from which this work of art springs cannot be contained in a strict linear narrative. In fact, such a device might even lend a veneer of inevitability to them. For the narrative that began with a search for fresh water on an island one Sunday morning has no end – it circles back on itself, it begins again, it staggers sideways, it never lurches forward to a conclusion in which the world where it began is suddenly transformed into an ideal, new world. Schwarz-Bart’s prose awakens the senses and enlarges the imagination; it makes me anxious for my own sanity and yet at the same time certain of it; her sentences, rooted in Creole experience and filled with surprising insights and proverbs, resonate in my head and heart.” Jamaica Kincaid

It is one of the best books I have read in a long time, coming from a place of love and appreciation that reaches far back, acknowledging the gifts of all, that make up who we are. Outstanding.

Simone and André Schwarz-Bart

Simone and André Schwarz-Bart

Simone Schwarz-Bart was born in France(her parents were from Guadeloupe) in 1938, her father a solider, her mother a teacher. When war broke out, she and her mother returned to Guadeloupe. She studied in Paris, where she met her future husband, the writer André Schwarz-Bart.

They collaborating on more than one work of literature, including a six-volume encyclopaedia Hommage à la femme noire, (In Praise of Black Women), to honour the black heroines who were missing in the official historiography.

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Brother, I’m Dying by Edwidge Danticat

Brother Im DyingI first read Haitian author, Edwidge Danticat last summer, her novel Breath, Eyes, Memory (review linked below) about a young girl living with her Aunt in Haiti, while her mother lived in New York, a little like the life of the author herself, much of which is revealed in this non-fiction title, Brother, I’m Dying where we learn more about her life, though the primary focus is on her father Mira and in particular, her Uncle Joseph.

After having read a number of books in the Caribbean tradition recently, it is both unique and a gesture of deep reverence to read about the special connection between a daughter and her two fathers, for she sees both these men, and rightfully so, as her fathers.

The novel opens on the day of two discoveries, the author learns she is pregnant with her first child and hears that her father has been diagnosed with a terminal illness. The pulmonary disorder had required him to take medicine (containing codeine) resulting in his taxi licence being revoked. The medicine did nothing to alleviate his symptoms, worse it lost him his job and his dignity.

The chapters alternate between their present life in America and the author’s early life in Haiti, recounting the lives of the two brothers. We come to understand the lives they create from the choices they made, how they reinvent themselves, the obstacles they face, whether it’s family, work, the establishment, or navigating the political and legal demands of the countries they inhabit.

Mira leaves Haiti to create a better life in America for his family, a departure the author has no memory of, though her Uncle Joseph’s adopted daughter Marie Micheline shared stories with her, in a tradition common to people like her, anecdotes of poignant memories for those that have been left, to serve as reassurance that they were and are loved.

“Unfortunately I wasn’t told many stories like that. What I did often hear about was the future, an undetermined time when my father would send for my mother, Bob and me.”

Life was difficult for her mother and she often left the children with her brother-in-law to ensure the children had a decent meal. Then two years after her father left, when she was four and Bob was two, her mother’s visa was approved and she too departed, alone.

The two children became very attached to their Aunt and Uncle, while they waited out the nine long years before they too could make their eventual transition to join their parents in New York. Finally happening when Edwidge was twelve years old, it would be an even greater emotional challenge, not least because they had two younger brothers born in the US, one of whom believed he was the rightful, elder child of the family.

Back in Haiti, Joseph’s voice had begun to quiver, it worried him so he travelled to a hospital where US doctors were visiting, learning of a suspected tumour that would block his airways and suffocate him if not removed. It could be extracted in the US, but so too with it, would be his voice, reduced to a bare whisper, a death-knell for a pastor.

Almost like a miracle, on a subsequent visit for a check-up, he is shown a contraption he can use to amplify his whispers and allow people to hear him.

“My father took my uncle’s hand and led him to a lamp in a corner of the room, so he could better see the machine and its interaction with my uncle’s neck. This was their first two-sided conversation in many years and they both seemed to want to move it past the technicalities to a point of near normalcy.”

Edwidge Danticat

Edwidge Danticat

The one thing that remains constant throughout their long separation, is their love and respect for each other, as witnessed and shared through the eyes of their daughter and niece.

Edwidge Danticat writes in such an honest and compassionate way, you can’t help but become drawn into their story and feel concern at the various dramatic points that arise, willing things to turn out for the best – except that’s not what happens in real life – in reality, not everything will turn out as we will it to, but the memories will remain and the experiences contribute to forming the characters that we become.

It is a credit to the author to have chosen to share something of her life, her early childhood, without elevating herself as the main character of interest, it is both a story and a tribute to the extended family and the men who tried to lead them to live in safety.

The brothers chose different paths, one deciding to leave, the other to stay and though they were separated for 30 years their relationship remained strong, seeing each other as often as they could and keeping this strong connection between all the extended members of the family and their birth country.

As Cristina García, author of Dreaming in Cuban (one of my Top 5 Fiction Reads of 2015) put it:

“Edwidge Danticat’s moving tale of two remarkable brothers – her own father  and her beloved Uncle Joseph, separated for thirty years – is as compelling and richly told as her fiction. Politically charged and sadly unforgettable, their stories will lodge themselves in your heart.”

Breath Eyes Memory

A wonderful book, an honest portrayal of lives, where joy and struggle go hand in hand, where fear is never far from the front gate and sadness its companion, yet full of hope and spiritedness as an eighty-one-year old man refuses to let thugs take all that he has, and even though he risks his life, he will continue to pursue with righteousness, what is necessary in his own country to ensure justice. Which only serves to make what follows so immensely tragic.

A 5 star must read for me.

Further Links:

Edwidge Danticat, my review of Breath, Eyes, Memory

Cristina García, my review of Dreaming in Cuban