Caribbean Bookshelf (September/October 2015)

This month’s reading picks

The Galaxy GameClaire of the Sea LightThe Way HomeLondon is the Place for MeEnchanting Trinidad & Tobago

The Galaxy Game, by Karen Lord (Del Rey, 336 pp, ISBN 9780345534071)

Love, politics, and sweat commingle in The Galaxy Game, Barbadian Karen Lord’s sequel to the speculative space opera The Best of All Possible Worlds. Rafi Delarua, a precocious and psionically gifted youngster, receives instruction in how to harness his emotional potential at the Lyceum, a school meant to instil social temperaments in the paranormally gifted. No matter the intergalactic destination, however, experience proves a much better tutor than theory: Rafi learns this when he blows the cage lid of his innocence wide open, journeying across widely, wildly diverse settlements to discover more about himself, his capabilities, and what it means to travel far.

There are no limits to the lithe topographies of imagination that Lord constructs — her first two books demonstrate this in their explorative density, and The Galaxy Game shatters the limits of their spatial boundaries. The reader travels as far as Rafi, immersing herself as deeply in cultures of matriarchal sovereignty and complex, precise social calisthenics. Science fiction has long been one of the most penetrating ways to speak directly about humanity’s delicateness and devastation. This smart sojourner’s journal of a novel showcases the broad spectrum of how we feel about soaring or sinking towards the truth about ourselves as breathing beings.

“We stand on nothing in the midst of space. This is true. This has always been true.” This is how one of the novel’s chief games, Wallrunning, is played: with the living body pitted against gravity and alongside fellow athletes. It’s an apt, mature metaphor for survival itself, and for how communities flourish in shared joys over any beautiful game. Wallrunning conjures the intensity of cricket on a Caribbean pitch, and Rafi longs for heliconias far from home: evidence that even strewn wide across the infinite playing field of space, the beating heart reaches for what it knows best.

 

Claire of the Sea Light, by Edwidge Danticat (Vintage, 256 pp, ISBN 9780307472274)

Claire Limyè Lanmè straddles more than one world — contained within her seven-year-old personhood are traces of the spirit past, mingled with the many hopes of the breathing present: she is composed of equal parts light and its spectral absence. In her fate, and the fates of the inhabitants of her coastal village, Danticat imbues the ritual revolutions of life and rebirth, death and dissolution, tracing entire genealogies in sweeping ebbs and outflows of the Haitian sea. Claire of the Sea Light contains elements that would suit the sculpting of fairytale, none of which interfere with the incessant attrition of reality’s burdens against the tide. The novel does not ply Haiti for its best-known griefs, but resides with a kind of dread determination in the unsettling emotional calm before very great storms.

 

The Way Home, by Millicent A.A. Graham (Peepal Tree Press, 56 pp, ISBN 9781845232344)

“Yet, heart pounds; heart swells; heart beats again”: so closes one of the poems in Millicent Graham’s sophomore collection. It’s a quietly despairing contemplation of a life in digital correspondence, but its concluding lines present a diviner’s charm for scrying the pulse of the poet’s motivations: to present the relentless surge and ripple of returns to a hearth. It is this mapping of homelands with which Graham’s verse is concerned, and the poems seek out a lush, durable ecosystem of sights and sounds, finding their emotional registers cleanly and calmly on the page. There are many roots buttressing these poems, whose subjects catalogue life through decay, through the startles and flights of avian kin, through the promise of memory and the passage of time.

 

London Is the Place for Me, by Bel Kais (Artemis Publishers, 212 pp, ISBN 9781907785139)

A lovingly rendered biography of one of steel pan’s most prominent pioneers, London Is the Place for Me not only highlights the extraordinary trajectory of Sterling Betancourt’s life, it places the changing face of both the instrument and the London that received it at the story’s centre stage, too. Bel Kais uses generous narrative strokes to paint Betancourt’s Laventille origins, his early London wanderings in a 1950s climate of musical artisanship, his immersion in the role of nothing less than a global pan ambassador. From Notting Hill’s triumphant mid-1960s birth, in which the pan savant had extensive influence, to a deeply personal register of loves and losses, Kais’s biography bestows upon the reader a full scale of both major and minor tunes in Betancourt’s life.

 

Enchanting Trinidad & Tobago, by Ivor Skinner (John Beaufoy Publishing, 80 pp, ISBN 9781909612204)

Wendy Fitzwilliam in full Carnival regalia greets the curious traveller who opens Enchanting Trinidad & Tobago: she’s an eminently worthy emissary of this technicolour guidebook’s promise, a symbol of T&T’s cultural diversity, historical legacies, and proud awareness of its own hummingbird-rapid propensity to delight. Skinner’s visually rich handbook to the islands’ charm and charisma will serve both fledgling sojourners and locals looking to prime themselves with a staycation passport of sorts: a reminder of all that’s best and brightest in these cosmopolitan cradles of calypso, callaloo, and (so much more than) Carnival. The author’s glowing text juxtaposes vivid photographic treasuries of rivers, street food ambrosia, and revellers in and out of fancy dress, proudly declaring that Trinidadians and Tobagonians know how to access a good time in many states.

Reviews by Shivanee Ramlochan, Bookshelf editor