Caribbean Bookshelf (November/December 2015)

This month’s reading picks

The Star Side of Bird HillBury My ClothesLeaving by Plane Swimming Back UnderwaterLex TalionisFalmouth, Jamaica: Architecture as History

The Star Side of Bird Hill, by Naomi Jackson (Penguin Press, 304 pp, ISBN 9781594205958)

“Oh dear heart. Too much of even what you love can hurt you.” Phaedra’s wise, battle-worn grandmother Hyacinth cautions her thusly after an unfortunate incident involving one too many mangoes. This steel-tempered wisdom glows brightly in the emotional furnace of Naomi Jackson’s debut novel, The Star Side of Bird Hill. Focusing on Phaedra and her elder sister Dionne’s less than sunshiny life in Barbados under Hyacinth’s care, the narrative ebbs and flows between Bimshire and Brooklyn, where the girls’ tenuous home with their mother has been disrupted, their sense of security jettisoned to rough waters.

Jackson’s prose, by turns softly beautiful and sharply instructive, is frequently about learning to keep one’s head up above such tempests and dire squalls. Squabbles abound between headstrong Dionne and the quietly watchful Phaedra, but shared experience knits the two. This is a Bildungsroman with more than one plucky heroine, and the navigation of their separate, converging calamities and coups is handsomely, gracefully handled.

Barbados itself is also allowed to shine on the page in Bird Hill, a fiercely insular, tender community invested with matriarchal pride and solemnity. The people who live, love, fight, and mourn on Bird Hill know how to tend sorrows and witness miracles alike. It is in this small sanctuary of society, itself not immune to complications, that Dionne and Phaedra find their family softness restored. In watchful glasses of water set out to lure tricky spirits, and in hymns sung hard and holily by white candlelight, The Star Side of Bird Hill summons both mystery and healing to the lives of young girls and learned women alike. “Beauty,” as Phaedra learns, and as this winsomely regenerative debut instructs, “was a common, everyday kind of thing available for anyone with eyes open enough to see.”

 

Bury My Clothes, by Roger Bonair-Agard (Haymarket Books, 120 pp, ISBN 9781608462698)

Language, history, colour, fury, and sound converge in the meeting station of Roger Bonair-Agard’s third collection of poems, and the result is a carnival unto itself. Drawing meaning deep from boyhood days in Trinidad, and infusing verses with the brutal instruction of a black man’s existence in the United States, these poems are merciless in their search for meaning. They howl in their decrying of injustices, but leave enough light in their powerfully fortressed structures to be awed by women’s beauty, humbled by children’s innocence, stirred by the sweetness of a steelpan melody. The poet persists, and triumphs, in championing “this talk, this calypso, the warp and weft of what it means to be black and remember.”

 

Leaving by Plane Swimming Back Underwater, by Lawrence Scott (Papillote Press, 176 pp, ISBN 9780957118782)

This small volume of short fiction, vast in imagination and its capacity for imparting minor miracles of belief and natural beauty, is a portrait of Trinidad through decades of industrial development, colonial hold and sway — and of God’s hand in the details. Ingénues tangle with forces of ruin and devastation; expatriates recognise each other in cold foreign streets, through the lilt and mystery of each other’s waning accents. Penitents and sinners whip themselves up into states of spiritual ecstasy, while Trade winds, mountain ranges, and perfumed canopies of flowers keep watch, silently and without any judgement we can discern, over the affairs of mortals. With all the sensitivity and sleight of hand evident in his body of work, Scott’s success here is in crafting an emporium of both human and animal fascinations.

 

Lex Talionis, by R.S.A. Garcia (Dragonwell Publishing, 354 pp, ISBN 9781940076126)

In her ambitious speculative debut, Trinidadian R.S.A. Garcia explores the timeless archetype of the shattered, enduring woman warrior through fresh and scientifically evolutionary scopes. Proving that some horrors visited on women remain horrendous, despite the ages in which they are committed, Lex Talionis takes several unflinching looks at the concepts of justice, mercy, and that complex endeavour of survival in times of personal and global warfare. Written with an arsenal of tension-building armaments, and wearing all the hallmarks of a science fiction thriller that’s done its worldbuilding homework, Garcia’s first novel leaves readers eagerly anticipating a sequel. Lex Talionis sings a bloody song of both forgetting and redemption, and of the price we pay for a little tenderness, when least we expect to be taxed for our freedoms.

 

Falmouth, Jamaica: Architecture as History, edited by Louis P. Nelson, Edward A. Chappell, and Brian Cofrancesco (University of the West Indies Press, 320 pp, ISBN 9789766404932)

Architecture is often the rusted, gilt-edged key to unlocking what makes certain towns and villages historically fascinating: and Falmouth, Jamaica’s jewel of a port and market town in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, is rich with the layered weight of stories to tell about its own past. This foray into Falmouth’s origins also examines its emergence into modern times, spanning from its 1769 foundation to its 2008 establishment of a cruise ship terminal. Taking us on a street-by-street journey replete with visual and textual detail, the editors strive to show us how people loved, lived, adjudicated, and traded in Falmouth. From courthouses to stone-hewn edifices of prayer, police barracks to post offices, every lintel and frame is considered in this ode to a city’s enduring timelessness.

Reviews by Shivanee Ramlochan, Bookshelf editor