Caribbean Bookshelf (September/October 2016) | Book Reviews

This month’s reading picks

A Walk Back in Time: Snapshots of the History of Trinidad & TobagoChildren of the SpiderGone to DriftDancing in the Rain’Membering

A Walk Back in Time: Snapshots of the History of Trinidad and Tobago, by Angelo Bissessarsingh (Queen Bishop Publishing, 225 pp, ISBN 9789768255174)

History books are records of fact and conjecture: the perfect recipe for public and private opinion, battling it out. While it’s certain that there’s no one way to remember how a thing happened, the best history books focus on remembering honourably. Angelo Bissessarsingh’s Snapshots of the History of Trinidad and Tobago sets itself high, honourable stakes, and capitalises on them in one sepia shot after another.

Chronicling the twin island republic’s governance, industry, commerce, cultural development, transport — indeed, seeking to give foundation and formation to the temperament of an island consciousness itself — is no small undertaking. Bissessarsingh commits himself to the study of T&T in newspaper column entries, several of them originally published in the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian. Reproduced here, and flanked with material written exclusively for Snapshots, each entry is as the volume’s title suggests: a colourfully told contemplation replete with both historical data and personal annalist’s panache.

From Trinidad’s steam-powered era to the Georgian architecture of Scarborough, Tobago, herein lie a culvert, cloister, and closet of antiquities for every amateur archivist longing to uncover more of the country’s past. Also a handsome companion to any professional historian’s library of reference works, Snapshots shines because it never confines itself to a recounting of dates. Bissessarsingh isn’t afraid to trawl for the stories beneath the census figures: in the diary entries, second-hand reports, and peered-into journals of the past, the most miraculous fragments of history wait to be gossiped over, anew. Snapshots assembles them and gives them their timely due.

 

Children of the Spider, by Imam Baksh (Blouse & Skirt Books, 208 pp, ISBN 9789768267016)

Young spelunkers and adult adventurers alike, take note: Guyanese Imam Baksh’s Children of the Spider is contemporaneous proof that the Caribbean has always possessed its own natal magic. First-place winner of the 2015 CODE Burt Award for Caribbean Literature, this novel brings together cavern depths, Hindu prayer flags, dogfighting, alien-human telepathy, and trips up the Demerara River, governed by a consummate storyteller’s hand and a riotous respect for a tale well-spun. Baksh eschews stale colonial schoolbook legends for the crafty innovation of a speculative, present-day Guyana, a cunningly curious, prismatic place where “no god ever deal fair with nobody in this life.” Here, in clever prose that’s big on Guyanese dialects, is Anansi rendered as you’ve never quite glimpsed her before. These are the Caribbean’s myths, repurposed: Baksh animates his novel with fierce inquisitorial delight, spreading it from Georgetown to Guyana’s hinterland, and beyond.

 

Gone to Drift, by Diana McCaulay (Papillote Press, 210 pp, ISBN 9780993108617)

Jamaican Diana McCaulay’s attention turns to the seas in Gone to Drift: both as a masterful force that snatches life in its powerful maw, and as the capricious cradle of birth itself. Second-place winner of the 2015 CODE Burt Award for Caribbean Literature, the novel splits its voice between young Lloyd, whose grandfather has been jettisoned to the oceans, and the lost grandfather himself. Through these layered perspectives, McCaulay allows the natural ebb and flow of Jamaica to reach towards her young readers, revealing the island through its beating, breathing heart: a place where, despite the passion of young conservationists, spoilage and infrastructural waste wield threatening sceptres. Avoiding a preaching stance to her environmental passions, the writer shapes a world where the love of the land and surf can — and should — be worth the sacrifice of a million plastic monoliths.

 

Dancing in the Rain, by Lynn Joseph (Blouse & Skirt Books, 200 pp, ISBN 9789769543690)

Third-place winner of the 2015 CODE Burt Award for Caribbean Literature, Trinidadian Lynn Joseph’s Dancing in the Rain paints a cruel coming of age with vivid brushstrokes of imaginative flight. Elizabeth, at the beginning of her teenage years, believes in the moonbeam-light of mermaid necklaces, the restorative powers of flan, and the capacity of love to mend all hearts, in time. The Dominican Republic’s visual splendour and dense history is Elizabeth’s canvas for doing good, proving that more than one kind of pain can be healed through the everyday magic of open-heartedness. Joseph brings young characters to the page who have been brined in disappointment, showing keenly how Caribbean families lived and mourned in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks. In the forging of new bonds on a lush, creatively constellated island, Dancing in the Rain sensitively excavates hope from every ache, pulling love from the wreckage with grace, good humour, and gentle bravery.

 

’Membering, by Austin Clarke (Dundurn Press, 496 pp, ISBN 9781459730342)

Barbados-born, Canada-based, the late Austin Clarke did not come by the title of Canada’s first multicultural writer idly. In ’Membering, his 2016 OCM Bocas Prize–longlisted memoir, released in the year before his passing, Clarke’s reminiscences aren’t afraid to take the fondly stomped circuitous route to the page. Each corridor and avenue of revelation here is a minor delight or major curiosity: from Clarke’s 1955 arrival at the University of Toronto to his musical inspirations through Miles, Coltrane, Bird, Art Blakey, and Beethoven, the diversions and devastations of academic life, and his ceaseless work in the field of diversifying Canadian literature. No one could recount these decades of introspection, seemingly insurmountable challenge, heartbreak, and happiness better than Clarke himself. ’Membering puts the man, the creative visionary, and the writer front and centre, proving that beyond life what endures most richly is the legacy left by one of the Caribbean’s canonical best.