Caribbean Bookshelf (March/April 2014)

This month’s reading picks, from new fiction to seafaring tales

–––––

As Flies to Whatless Boys, by Robert Antoni (Akashic Books, 320 pp, ISBN 9781617751561)

Meddling with the metafictive, especially in the realms of historical fiction, usually finds most writers tangled up in a yawn-inducing miasma of unresolved plot points, straggling towards nowhere. Not so with Robert Antoni’s latest novel, As Flies to Whatless Boys, which finds sure footing in the coming-of-age narrative of fifteen-year-old William “Willy” Tucker. Accompanied by the other members of his working-class East End London family, Willy’s bound for the new world in 1845: Trinidad’s unknown shores, to be precise. His father, William Sr., has signed up the Tucker clan among the ranks of the Tropical Emigration Society, founded by one John Adolphus Etzler, visionary-cum-charlatan.

Etzler’s fantastical invention, the towering Satellite, is meant to reshape the pace and ease of agricultural work in the Caribbean. When the realities of the Satellite’s uses prove more cumbersome than catalytic, it’s up to the newly beached British immigrants to make the best of their dubious circumstances. Willy is less concerned with this than he is with the affections of Marguerite, a high-class beauty born without vocal cords. The future of their mismatched romance almost seems more certain than the destiny of the new settlers, as they navigate a jungle morass, swiftly succumbing to threats of the “Black Vomit” (yellow fever).

Antoni’s skills are manifold in this audacious novel, not least in his melding of historical and contemporary Trinidads, creating a dangerous, alluring anti-Paradise with a careful culling of facts from actual archives: documents, letters, and journalism. It’s rare to find a book that’s swamped in the past and at the same time peering towards the present. As Flies to Whatless Boys achieves this enviable balance by planting a foot in either realm. It brings the travails and small delights of Willy Tucker to the centre stage of our imaginings, asking only that we accompany him on this unforgettable voyage, whether the journey’s end augurs ill or well.

Shivanee Ramlochan,
Bookshelf editor

 

If I Never Went Home, by Ingrid Persaud (Blue China Press, 304 pp, ISBN 9780992697709)

Bea, a Trinidad-born, Boston based professional, wasn’t always a quietly confident therapist: it took a long haul through mental illness for her to land steady on her feet. Similarly, the life of young Trinidadian Tina Ramlogan isn’t smoothly charted: she’s got to contend with serious bacchanal in her domestic milieu. Persaud tells an interwoven, multiple-perspective coming-of-age story that hinges on these two outsiders, never shortchanging her readers on emotional impact. Many of the novel’s scenes feel pre-formatted for a cinematic tearjerker, particularly those delving into complex issues of holistic mental treatment, domestic secrecy, and parent-child conflict. Rendering home as both an ideal location and a thicket of potential drama, Persaud’s first novel takes deep investigative looks at Trinidadian society, both at its source and in the diaspora.

SR

 

Cruising Life: The Best Stories from Caribbean Compass, edited by Sally Erdle and Rona Beame (Compass Publishing, 217 pp, ASIN B00DO8PHJ4)

Whether you know a topsail from a tourniquet, or a yardarm from yarn, you’ll find something worth perusing in this collection of pieces from Caribbean Compass magazine, which has been providing instructional and immersive news on sea and shore since 1995. The book is divided into sections spanning tales of adventure, humour, and travel, plus a special cookery segment with seafarers’ favourite dishes in various ports of call. A ghostly sea dog and his canine companions populate a touching anecdote, and one female sailor’s account of arriving topless in Cartagena probably isn’t what you’re expecting. These foam-sprayed encounters with storms, piratical heists, and the seclusion offered on remote islands may prompt even the most devoted land-dweller towards a maiden voyage.

SR

 

Global Reggae, edited by Carolyn Cooper (Canoe Press, 329 pp, ISBN 9789768125965)

This timely compendium explores the myriad ways reggae has impacted the world, teasing out the complex and often contradictory manner in which other cultures have engaged with the music. It is drawn from plenary lectures delivered at the Global Reggae Conference, held in Jamaica in 2008, which gathered many of the world’s leading authorities at the instigation of Professor Carolyn Cooper, who founded the International Reggae Studies Centre in 1995 to accord the music its appropriate level of scholarly weight. Highlights include Erna Brodber’s exploration of reggae’s impact at home during the 1960s, Amon Saba Saakana on reggae in Britain, Samuel Fure Davis on Cuban reggae, and Teddy Isimat-Mirin on French-Caribbean dancehall. There are also chapters examining reggae’s impact in Europe, Oceania, Japan, and Africa, making the book required reading.

David Katz

 

Brian Lara: An Unauthorised Biography, by James Fuller (Signal Books, 208 pp, ISBN 9781908493620)

More years of research than you can shake a stick at, plus no mean allotment of devotion to its larger-than-life subject, make James Fuller’s unofficial Lara biography one for the record books. A mercurial figure of professional greatness and a personal life marked by both traditionalisms and complexities, Lara’s nuances both on and off the pitch are held up to generous, multi-tiered scrutiny beneath Fuller’s lens. Tracing Lara’s Cantaro origins through a collection of tellingly generous interviews, the English journalist presents a moving, not-uncritical portrait of a man whose permanence in cricketing history has long been out of dispute. Far more than a statistic-checking performance sheet, Fuller’s offering fleshes out Lara in his glory, paying needful attention to the weight of such splendour.

SR