Caribbean Bookshelf

Diana McCaulay’s novel Huracan, and our other reading picks this month


Our pick

Huracan, by Diana McCaulay (Peepal Tree Press, 291 pp, ISBN 9781845231965)

1986: Leigh McCaulay, a white Jamaican who migrated to the United States a decade before, returns to Kingston, after the death of her estranged mother. There is unfinished family business to deal with, and questions to answer. 1786: the young Scotsman Zachary Macaulay (a fictionalised version of the historical British abolitionist) arrives in Jamaica to work as a bookkeeper at Bonnie Valley Plantation, where he is confronted with the casual brutalities of a society run on enslaved labour. 1886: the Rev. John Macaulay, another Scotsman with family connections in Jamaica, arrives in the island as a Baptist missionary and is assigned to a rural village. Although half a century has passed since Emancipation, the legacies of slavery linger.

Diana McCaulay is a leading Jamaican environmentalist, and the author of one previous novel: Dog-Heart, an unsparing story about an ultimately tragic relationship across Jamaica’s class barriers. Huracan, her second book, shares Dog-Heart’s concerns with the legacies of violent history. It asks how the past — including supposedly forgotten events — impinges on the present: for individuals, for families, for a whole nation.

As Huracan’s three storylines unfold, recurring motifs emphasise both parallels and divergences in the experiences of the three characters — Zachary, John, and Leigh — each separated from the previous by a century. But despite its wide chronological scope, Huracan can’t be described as an epic work: McCaulay deliberately focuses on details of domesticity, the ordinary lives of her characters, and the many small incremental choices that ultimately compose “history.” It ends with Leigh’s discovery of the truth about her mother’s death and reconciliation with past secrets — and her brave decision to remain in Jamaica, defy social convention, and imagine her own kind of future happiness.

Philip Sander


 

Archipelago, by Monique Roffey (Simon & Schuster UK, 368 pp, ISBN 9781849838757)

Monique Roffey’s third novel begins with a flood — perhaps not on a Biblical scale, but enough to devastate the lives of Gavin and his six-year-old daughter Océan. With her recurring nightmares forcing Océan to relive the trauma, father and daughter decide to abandon terra firma and set off on a sea voyage from their island home. Their geographical destination is the Galápagos, but — as always in questing tales — the journey matters as much as the arrival. Trinidad-born Roffey, author of The White Woman on the Green Bicycle, unfurls a story about coming to terms with grief. Whether in everyday life or on the high seas, she suggests, the anchor is love.

PS

George Price: A Life Revealed, by Godfrey P. Smith (Ian Randle Publishers, 358 pp, ISBN 9789766375935)

Biographies of Caribbean politicians are often exercises in partisan hackery. Belizean attorney Godfrey P. Smith is a former Cabinet minister from the People’s United Party, but his authorised biography of the late George Price — PUP leader and first prime minister of Belize — is no fawning hagiography. It is, rather, a clear-eyed and even-handed portrait of the utterly contradictory man who dominated Belizean public life in the twentieth century. Price, a former Roman Catholic priest turned anti-colonial firebrand, was unfailingly pious and ascetic — he was celibate up to his death at the age of ninety-two — but also vengeful, devious, and willing to deal with enemies to achieve his political ends. Smith’s gripping book, winner of the 2012 OCM Bocas Prize for non-fiction, draws on candid interviews with Price, granted near the end of his life, and benefits from its author’s own political experience. No one at the highest levels of national power — Smith served as attorney general and foreign minister — can afford to be naïve about the compromises required to bring a nation into being.

PS

Trick Vessels, by Andre Bagoo (Shearsman, 80 pp, ISBN 9781848612037)

The title of this singular first collection of poems draws on the concept of ancient Greek and Phoenician puzzle devices, built for sportive amusement, created to be both mysterious and entertaining. This notion, of structured gauntlets concealing unknowable trap doors, runs through the spine of Trick Vessels. Trinidadian Andre Bagoo reels the reader in with minutiae rendered in exquisite clarity, with shocking, canny grace. Each poem heralds all things as unfathomable and open to multiple interpretations. The poet’s crafty respect for language’s conventions couples with an eager willingness to spearhead experimentations in form and meaning, producing work that confirms itself on each page as both magical and terrestrial, both one thing and another — all splendid, and all infinitely tricky.

Shivanee Ramlochan

Jubilation!: Poems Celebrating 50 Years of Jamaican Independence, ed. Kwame Dawes (Peepal Tree Press, 176 pp, ISBN 978184523965)

“I wanted to give Jamaica a collection of the moment,” says editor Kwame Dawes, “a very contemporary reflection on these fifty years.” And despite the title of this anthology, with its triumphant exclamation point, “these are not poems of casual and predictable celebration.” The tone ranges from the elegiac (Lorna Goodison’s “Our Blessed Country Lady”) to the wry (Mervyn Morris’s “A Poet of the People”), from the militant (A-dZiko Simba’s “Piece in Parts (Fi Tosh — RIP)”) to the wistful (Rachel Manley’s “Regardless”). And with just about every living Jamaican poet of note in the company — fifty-three in all, or, as Dawes puts it, “fifty an’ a brawta” — Jubilation! offers as clear a snapshot as any of the range of voices, styles, and approaches in contemporary Jamaican verse.

PS