Caribbean Bookshelf (March/April 2016)

This month’s reading picks

The Whale HouseCongotronicMusical Youth

The Whale House, by Sharon Millar (Peepal Tree Press, 128 pp, ISBN 9781845232498)

Within an island, no matter how small, many other worlds are contained. Sharon Millar’s skill in her debut collection of short fiction, The Whale House, is to bring so many of those slumbering enclaves of particularly Trinidadian island living to the surface of her writing. Millar’s 2013 Commonwealth Short Story Prize-winning piece, “The Whale House”, is where the collection takes its name. It is a maritime elegy, a matrilineal exploration of loss and the secrets women keep from their partners, their families, ultimately even themselves, for the sake of preserving a salt-drenched, disturbing sense of peace.

In “Brian and Miss Zanana”, a furtive herpetologist considers the precarious counterpoise he tries to keep between man and beast: “I’ve always kept the venomous snakes separated from the others. I’ve been so careful, I’ve tried so hard to keep the balance between humans and the snakes, never taking chances.” The narrator’s thorny conflict is a microcosm of the book’s chief concern: Millar’s stories straddle the median line between wilderness and metropolis, asking of the reader that she find a toehold in either world. In the final offering of the book, the narrator warns herself, “The forest has no time for town shenanigans like flashy planes or making the village my own exotic backdrop. The forest has an instinct for this type of behaviour, even if you hide it from yourself.”

The Whale House takes no prisoners in its oceanic wake: everyone’s life, from mournful housewives to gun-strapped gangsters, is peered into; everyone’s confidences are capsised into the author’s confessional bowl. Millar unites the whole with a dazzling attention to language’s depths, suffusing her character descriptions and place evocations with a sensuous, restrained prose that feeds full-fathoms from the wild majesty of verdant ecosystems.

 

Congotronic, by Shane Book (University of Iowa Press, 80 pp, ISBN 9781609383077)

These poems from Canadian-Trinidadian Shane Book hook the reader through the auditory canal: in Congotronic, soundscapes explode with carnivalesque echoes, scattering chords of both dissonance and harmony throughout a richly journeyed terrain. The body of historic and cultural experiences from which Book draws context for his experimental poem-riffings is a collective brown and black body of suffering and resistance. From the horrific gleanings of plantation owners’ diaries, and in the reimagining of the Mali Empire’s Sundiata epic, Book traces new ways to be in the oldest significations. Delving into the proud history of rap and hip-hop culture, Book’s poems also triumph as sonic inventions, scattering rhymes on the page with fluidity and a deceptively simple grace. These are poems for both playfulness and inward navigation, built with a nomadic sensibility, yet conjuring several place-names on our shared global map.

 

Musical Youth, by Joanne C. Hillhouse (CaribbeanReads Publishing, 280 pp, ISBN 9780989930512)

Smooth-talking Shaka finds himself instantly smitten by the secretive loner Zahara: both teens share an innate love of music that is both diverse and sustaining. They’ve both used musicianship to mask their personal griefs, but in an improbable friendship, can their united notes resound with even deeper comforts? In this young adult novel from Antiguan Joanne C. Hillhouse, second-place winner of the inaugural CODE Burt Award for Caribbean Literature, music is both the food of love and a furnace for self-expression. Hillhouse speaks directly to young readers, but with concerns of colourism, class clashes, and society’s skewed expectations for boys and girls. There are no missteps in this tender coming-of-age romance, only an enthusiasm for love and life that reverberates triumphantly, as both Shaka and Zahara battle their demons with hope’s persistent chorus.