Bookshelf (November/December 2012)

This month’s reading picks


Our pick

The Ladies Are Upstairs, by Merle Collins (Peepal Tree Press, 160 pp, ISBN 9781845231798)

Employing short fiction to span a lifetime of experiences can seem, at worst, a dubious conceit, when you consider that the novel is perhaps the ideal genre for this vein of character development. Grenadian writer Merle Collins presents the life of Doux Thibaut as a central, auxiliary, and even peripheral figure in the eleven stories of this collection, each one serving to shed light on her journey from pre-adolescent precociousness to the graying resolution of her octogenarian years. Doux’s life is marked by sharp, often unfair contrasts: the lacunae between rich and poor, the severe stratifications of class, gender, education versus its lack, and the dilemma of how to formulate one’s identity coherently in the midst of all this.

Many of the stories are simultaneously grounded in the island territory of Paz — where Doux comes to maturity — and the uncertain allure of the diaspora beyond. In Collins’s novella preceding the Doux stories, Rain Darling, the title character suffers cruelly after the begrudging fulfillment of relocation from Paz to Brooklyn. If Rain Darling is a harsh reminder that not all fortunes are magically buoyed by a continental shift, then the remaining stories here are reinforcements of one woman’s courageous interface with the ways in which an island’s politics can erode resilience. Her life is told with the confidence of a gentle language, at once easy with itself and assured of how it speaks to the establishment of place. Both at home and abroad, memories are either difficult to bear, or comforting to hold. It is the persistence of ghosts, history, and hard-won humour that marks this enterprise in fiction as a novel-in-short-stories, a genre-melding triumph well worth the contemplation.


 

Near Open Water, by Keith Jardim (Peepal Tree Press, 172 pp, ISBN 9781845231880)

Violence and nature wrestle as uncomfortably twinned forces in this disturbing first collection of short fiction by Trinidadian Keith Jardim. Reverence for the landscape and its majestic creatures (with special attention bestowed to jaguars) mingles with unsolicited visits from policemen, and forays into the urban Trinidadian night, where nothing is as it seems. Men and women use each other poorly; innocence evaporates into the white-hot, machete-wielding need for vengeance. Despite the wrenching trauma of their subject matter, the stories in Near Open Water hint that the deepest rewards for personal fulfilment are to be found on the littoral and in the jungle thicket, in communion and congress with the land. The overarching suggestion seems to be that we can see ourselves most clearly in what we’re willing to cast away.


This Strange Land
, by Shara McCallum (Alice James Books, 80 pp, ISBN 978-1882295869)

Shara McCallum’s elegant, unsettling poetry reminds the reader that “there are moments in a life when everything comes apart, is ripped so clean who you are is laid bare,” offering, in the thick of this displacement, hopeful anchors and symbols by which fragmented people can recognise themselves, and each other. Drawing heavily on remembrances of her childhood in 1970s Jamaica, recalling both senseless brutalities and notes of rare beauty, the poet seeks her identity in both unaccustomed and familiar territories. She wrests fragments of herself from multiple sources, and the results are evident in these spare, unflinching verses. From uneasy youth to introspective adulthood, and all the stages of love and longing straddling these spaces, these poems offer the advice that strange places can become more intimate in our desire to inhabit them knowingly.


Grace in the City
, by Victoria Brown (Voice Hyperion, 352 pp, ISBN 9781401341831)

Grace in the City — previously published in hardcover as Minding Ben — mines unexpectedly refreshing terrain in the otherwise cloying genre of nanny fiction, focusing on the life of idealistic, young Grace Caton, who eschews Trinidadian small-village confines to make her mark in New York, migrating there in 1989. Finding herself in the employ of an upper-middle-class Manhattan couple whose cruelty often seems cartoonishly enforced, Grace learns quick lessons about perceptions and the possibilities inherent in navigating New York without a safety net. Where the narrative wears thin in terms of plausibility, it is marshalled admirably by Victoria Brown’s lyricism. This is a comedy of manners that morphs into a piercingly insightful immigrant’s tale. Readers may be less compelled to cheer consistently for Grace, but they will take note of the lessons she learns, to both her chagrin and her credit.


Dancing Lessons
, by Olive Senior (Cormorant, 384 pp, ISBN 9781770860476)

How curious and delightful to conceive of Olive Senior making a writing debut of any kind. Yet Dancing Lessons is her first novel, joining the rest of her considerable oeuvre with no uncertain success. Gertrude Samphire, in the twilight of her years, is sent to a convalescent home by her daughter, while her own home in rural Jamaica undergoes repairs, in the aftermath of a hurricane. Gertrude, who refers to herself cryptically as G for much of the novel, casts her thoughts back to the life that has been hers. The poignant, unsatisfying distances between G and her children are matched in subtler ways by the realisation that one can journey away from oneself, too. Masterfully hewn, the novel sashays in and out of seasons, conducting a measured, graceful investigation of the quiet despair that accompanies one woman’s rest.

Reviews by Shivanee Ramlochan