Caribbean Bookshelf (July/August 2015)

This month’s reading picks

A Brief History of Seven KillingsLand of Love and DrowningThe Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to ZionLove for an IslandIsland Bodies

A Brief History of Seven Killings, by Marlon James (Riverhead Books, 704 pp, ISBN 9781594486005)

Many roads in writing have led to Bob Marley — grandstanding tributes, gutsy memoirs, Tuff Gong manifestos of redemption and ruin — but none have been so bloody, so brightly blazing, as Marlon James’s dread love song to the reggae icon. Marley is writ both large and with largesse in James’s third novel, winner of the 2015 OCM Bocas Prize for Fiction. He is hailed in both hushed and hearty tones as “The Singer,” a man of mystery and mischief, manager of one-night stands beneath sweet Kingston moonlight, maker of melodies that show real Jamaicans, all Jamaicans, their true faces.

James is elbow-deep in the blood-spattered business of truth-telling, in his newest, boldest offering, and the subject on trial is every man. CIA agents, small-time gangsters, smart women on the lam, and more than one ghost who keeps court over the brutal affairs of the living: they all sing, scowl, and scuffle in this riot of an anti-paradise. Eight Lanes and Jungle are redolent with the “stew of pimento, gunshot blood, running water, and sweet rhythms,” and in this precarious urban sprawl, the peacekeepers aren’t often the ones you’d expect.

Papa-Lo, hardworking don of Copenhagen City, who counts his fealty to The Singer on all his fingers, muses on the unbalanced ledger of his sins, despite the countless rapes and robberies his reign has kept at bay. “Every man who fight monster become a monster too, and there be at least one woman in Kingston who think me is the killer of all things name hope,” he laments. His isn’t the only sorrow song in A Brief History of Seven Killings — it’s one of so many voices that cry out in the darkness, telling their secrets in language that soars and illumines.

 

Land of Love and Drowning, by Tiphanie Yanique (Riverhead Books, 356 pp, ISBN 9781594488337)

In Tiphanie Yanique’s mesmerising sea shanty of a debut novel, the phantoms that live in shipwrecks and family mausoleums of concealment will strengthen you, if they do not drown you first. Drawing on the fabulist legacies of magical realist titans, the author folds sensitivity and intrigue into the sixty years of generational saga that populate the domestic symphonies of the Bradshaws. Yanique cradles her mad, proud scions, sisters and ascendants in the US Virgin Islands, making these ports of call perilous and pulchritudinous in their own right. One of the novel’s pivotal hubs is Anegada, a place where “heaven and hell marry up and birth all the beauty goodness and badness could possibly make.” The marriages enacted between the players in Land of Love and Drowning are no less fraught, and just as rivetingly purposeful, for their heady complications.

 

The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion, by Kei Miller (Carcanet Press, 80 pp, ISBN 9781847772671)

What happens when a maker of maps and a rastaman converge at a Kingston standpipe, and talk sense into the shaping of the world? When Kei Miller is driving that particular speculative vehicle, expect magic and myth-making in the poetic bitumen. These verses make leaps, flourishes, and strides, while celebrating in lucid sharpness “the strange ways and names of this island: the clapping ascent to Baptist; the thankful that takes you up Grateful Hill . . . how this island spreads out like a palimpsest of maps.” Miller’s poems do battle against the fears of this uncivil age, making their stand amid fleets of rubber ducks and bleatings of tethered goats, calling forth the “tunderball and lightening day” of Zion, when all sinners and holy men can stand up and be counted.

 

Love for an Island: The Collected Poems of Phyllis Shand Allfrey, edited by Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert (Papillote Press, 104 pp, ISBN 9780957118751)

Dominican writer Phyllis Shand Allfrey is best known for her 1953 novel The Orchid House. Her poetry has lived long in a praiseworthy grove of formalism and feeling, but with quiet reverence in select literary circles. This new collection, prefaced by Lizabeth Paravisini-Gebert’s meditations on Allfrey’s progressive politics and their alchemising effect on her verse, brings together the poet’s four published books of poems, exposing their timeless strength. Reflected here is all the rich and ruthless strangeness of loving island landscapes, and an anti-colonialist, feminist ethic that layers and lines the messages of these poems. It is in this uncompromising home, as Allfrey writes for Jean Rhys in “The Child’s Return”, that “sailors will lay my bones on the stiff rich grass, as sharp as spikes, by the volcanic stones.”

 

Island Bodies: Transgressive Sexualities in the Caribbean Imagination, by Rosamond S. King (University Press of Florida, 264 pp, ISBN 9780813049809)

How we love, and express that love, is key to unlocking our own most complexly variegated questions on desire, autonomy, and identity — and these questions are just as persistent, as provocative, in Caribbean space. In discerning, keenly feeling scholarship that engages with the Caribglobal — with island societies in their latitudes of origin and their diasporic fortresses around the world — Rosamond King plumbs several depths of ardour and agency. Drawing observations and testing premises in the multiple wells of film, literature, music, and everyday life as investigative marrow, Island Bodies interrogates years of oppression and shackling decorum in Caribbean sexual space with relentless acuity. These bodies are ours, to love and look closely at what that love requires: against this truth, King attests, it is our civic legislatures and religious zealots who have the most catching up to do.

Reviews by Shivanee Ramlochan, Bookshelf editor