Caribbean Bookshelf (November/December 2013)

This month’s reading picks — from photography to fiction


Jamaica in Black and White: Photography in Jamaica, c 1845–1920, by David Boxer and Edward Lucie-Smith

(Macmillan Education, 304 pp, ISBN 9781405098878)

The considered historical photography book can mean a broad significance of things: it may serve as an emotional treasury, a satellite to one’s past and the past of one’s predecessors. It may be a compiled series of waypoints by which archivists and historical aficionados might navigate the development of a nation, a phenomenon, or a collective identity. It has the potential to be both cultural criticism and sepia slideshow, dually. This new compendium of photographs gleaned almost exclusively from the David Boxer collection, with accompanying texts by Boxer, former chief curator of the National Gallery of Jamaica, and art critic Edward Lucie-Smith, is both emotionally resonant and historically illuminating.

Known photographs from the late nineteenth into the early twentieth century do not encompass Jamaican slavery’s denouement — they begin in earnest from the early days of post-abolition, continuing through to the rebuilding of Kingston in the aftermath of the devastating 1907 earthquake. Events that contribute to the bedrock of Jamaican history are captured in still images by photographers of the age (notably A. Duperly and sons, though many of the featured photographs retain little to no significant source information). The Morant Bay Rebellion of 1865; the 1872 construction of Victoria Market; the heyday and decline of the island’s railway system: these scenes from the architectural, civic, and resistance archives of daily life find a generous berth of representation in these pages. The auxiliary texts of Lucie-Smith and Boxer are intelligent sideline additions: the images are always focal, compass points of an era in Jamaican history reinvigorated with vitality through contemporary examination.

Of particular appeal are the book’s numerous portraits. From these, a sense of multi-faceted, many-chambered personhood emerges, in the formal and unforced studies of landowners, field labourers, ex-slaves, immigrants, children: considered as an extended treatment in human study, these images will both inform and fascinate.

Shivanee Ramlochan,
Bookshelf editor

A Kind of Eden by Amanda Smyth

(Serpent’s Tail, 288 pp, ISBN 9781846688133)

Amanda Smyth’s second novel is a poetically violent contemplation of contemporary Trinidadian life, experienced through the jaded yet hopeful eyes of British police officer Martin Rawlinson. The foreigner navigates the island’s lush terrain with an uneasy appreciation, finding fleeting yet heady comforts in the arms of a younger local mistress. The author’s prose enacts a half-loving, half-horrified portraiture of a savage and terrifyingly beautiful place. As the novel’s dubious hero vacillates between ideas of identity and transplantation, the sympathetic reader feels Rawlinson’s fear: how so many of his personal dreams for peace unhinge in the chaos of one violent night, and the difficult decisions he must make in the wake of his family’s endangerment. Smyth guides the narrative smoothly, invoking terror and reflective disquiet alongside descriptions of natural splendour.

SR

 

Santimanitay by Nathalie Taghaboni

(Commess University Press, 361 pp, ISBN 9780615873336)

The much-anticipated second book in Nathalie Taghaboni’s Savanoy family series is a lot darker than its predecessor Across From Lapeyrouse, and deals with issues that most families would sweep under the carpet: alcoholism, mental illness, infidelity, and even more morbid reality. In telling Carlton and Helene’s love story, the author brings more of the Savanoys’ history to light. Without revealing spoilers, there is one passage where any woman who has had a child will put the book down to weep. This author’s ability to draw in and captivate a reader is quite unique. I don’t think I have ever been quite as invested in a book’s characters as I was with Santimanitay’s. You’ll leave this book feeling like the Savanoys are your own family.

Bridget van Dongen