Book Reviews (September/October 2011)

The new books that are reflecting the region right now

Book cover

 A walk on the wild side of love

Finding herself single in her late thirties, Trinidadian novelist Monique Roffey (The White Woman on a Green Bicycle) began a process of self-discovery that took her on a physical and spiritual journey. Unlike Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the blockbuster hit Eat, Pray, Love, Roffey focused on a single aspect of life: sex. The results are recorded in her new memoir, With the Kisses of His Mouth.

Roffey lives in England; it’s impossible to imagine a book like this being written in and for the Caribbean, a society which manages to be both highly sexualised and deeply conservative.

The relationship that had just ended was deep: “He was my twinned universe,” writes Roffey. But this marriage of souls was largely celibate – perhaps not surprisingly, given Roffey’s description of her ex (who is never named) as resembling a beluga whale, as well as having bad teeth, womanish hips, and “the posture and mannerisms of a showy transvestite”.

So, in a 180-degree turn, Roffey explores the wilder shores of physical love. She plunges in with a will, starting with no-strings-attached sex with strangers and progressing through tantric workshops to a nudist swingers’ resort. Every encounter is recorded in these raw and rambling pages, often in jaw-dropping detail. Despite initial cynicism (“Nothing like a serpent seemed to be awakened in my groin”), Roffey seems eventually to subscribe to every New Age theory behind the practice, whether it’s kundalini shaking, massaging a new acquaintance’s prostate, or working American Indian shamanic “sex magick”.

But through it all she mourns her lost love. Her devotion and her disarming openness, both to her reader and to new experience, make this book an engaging read – even if some of it makes you cringe.

Judy Raymond

With the Kisses of His Mouth Monique Roffey
(Simon & Schuster, ISBN 978-0-85720-249-5, 470pp)

 


 

Queen of all she surveyed

In this textbook example of academic overreaching, Oliver uses the hugely popular spectacle of beauty competitions in the US Virgin Islands to make inferences about the social and political history of the area. Herself a former USVI pageant queen, Oliver asserts that: “Queens have…been crucial participants in determining the path of black women’s influence in social and political movements as well as cultural practices in the territories.”

Many of the book’s arguments are mere assertion, grounded neither in empirical aesthetic theory nor social psychology. While acknowledging the role beauty contests play in getting women status, Oliver simultaneously claims that the USVI pageants are a form of self-assertion, since “No racial or aesthetic preference dominates”. She contrasts this with purported bias in Jamaican competitions, but her failure to mention the two black Miss Universe winners from the Caribbean (Janelle “Penny” Commissiong and Wendy Fitzwilliam, both of Trinidad & Tobago) is so glaring that the omission seems best explained by the fact that these women’s victories don’t fit into Oliver’s thesis.

Readers interested in the minutiae of beauty contests, however, will find plenty material here.

Kevin Baldeosingh

Queen of the Virgins M Cynthia Oliver
(University Press of Mississippi, ISBN 978-1-60473-242-9, 182pp)