Caribbean Bookshelf (May/June 2014)

This month’s fiction and poetry reading picks

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Sic Transit Wagon, by Barbara Jenkins
(Peepal Tree Press, 180 pp, ISBN 9781845232146)

If there can be one, satisfying definition of what it means to “write one’s lifetime,” then Barbara Jenkins lays quietly confident claim to it, in her debut collection of short fiction. Structured to encompass adolescence’s coming-of-age, these stories move through seasons and shifting fortunes, in and out of governments and countries. They celebrate what’s vital about the growth and scope of an individual life, paying close attention to our human bonds: how frail they feel under pressure, how much they can withstand in the face of great loss.

Two-time winner of the Caribbean category in the Commonwealth Short Story Prize, Jenkins is also the inaugural recipient of the Hollick Arvon Prize for emerging Caribbean writers. Several of the stories in her collection have previously appeared in print and online journals, and are themselves the winners of other prizes. Building on her formidable list of accolades, Jenkins imbues her narratives with uncanny perspicacity and a wry, frequently ironic humour that never misses its mark.

The title tale focuses on the narrator’s personal attachment to her silver station wagon. It’s a nostalgic remembrance of the vehicle’s multipurpose uses, of the changes the car has weathered both through the years, and as a permanent fixture in the narrator’s private dramas. This keenly inquisitive attention to the past marks the stories in Sic Transit Wagon, but no myopic navel-gazing filters onto the page. Instead, Jenkins’s stories each proclaim the inevitability of life’s vicissitudes, whether through death or the laundry list of other human frailties. Illegal produce peddlers, compassionate mistresses, enraged fathers: these are only a few of the author’s stunningly rendered cast of characters, made unfailingly credible for how well they resemble people we too have known all our lives.

 

All Over Again, by A-dZiko Simba Gegele
(Blue Moon Books, 151 pp, ISBN 9789769543614)

Conjuring the precise emotional mire that is an adolescent boy’s daily life, A-dZiko Simba Gegele’s debut novel for young adults is an unconventionally told adventure. Gegele summons the major distresses in her intrepid but harangued narrator’s existence with pitch-perfect tones of frustration. Characterised by colourful language that comes alive when read aloud, the author champions her plucky narrator’s battles, putting him up against great odds — a difficult dad, a painfully annoying sister, and the perfect girl who’s just out of reach, courted by the narrator’s chief classroom rival. Through it all, the reader roots for this young hero, taking a journey with him through school upheavals and domestic wars. His remarkable, deeply funny story is sure to resonate with the young, the old, and anyone who’s had to navigate a tough spot or two on the road to growing up.

 

The Butterfly Hotel, by Roger Robinson
(Peepal Tree Press, 72 pp, ISBN 9781845232191)

The monarch butterflies of one of Robinson’s poems declare themselves the polar opposite of papery, slight things. These winged beasts are tough, and unerringly formatted for difficult trans-maritime travels. In this respect, they are similar to the human subjects of the poet’s third collection: Caribbean diasporic citizens in exile, disconnected from both their homelands and the countries they’ve settled. Despite overwhelming despair, Robinson’s poems urge, hope kindles itself in the resilience of both men and butterflies alike. It’s a message frequently etched into these poems, demonstrated in visually evocative verse that retains strong core elements of performance poetry. Whether channelling memories of Windrush voyagers, or rhapsodising over an array of Tobago fruits, the poet lavishes praise on the art of keeping customs sacred, through intention and practice, through recording what ought not be forgotten.