Caribbean Bookshelf (March/April 2017) | Book Reviews

This month’s reading picks

Canouan Suite and Other PiecesThe YardThe Taxidermist’s CutMichael Manley: The BiographyA Handbook of Trinidad Cookery 1907

Canouan Suite and Other Pieces, by Philip Nanton (Papillote Press, 75 pp, ISBN 9780993108679)

Paintings can sometimes speak words; poems will occasionally offer vistas. These aren’t contradictions, but conclusions that St Vincent-born, Barbados-based Philip Nanton’s new hybrid art-verse book, Canouan Suite and Other Pieces, attempts to make plain. Nanton offers poems — some rollicking, others contemplative — alongside visual pieces from artists who are either Caribbean, or closely affiliated with Caribbean spaces. These poems immerse themselves playfully and poignantly in cricket, neo-colonisation, and the bewildering, bodacious beauty of Barbados itself.

What strikes the reader reassuringly is how firmly in the local soil these poems are grown. In “Night Cricket at Carlton Club, Barbados”, “bats are twirled; leather hits wood; runs, like souls, are sometimes saved. People erupt from their seats, shout, sit down, mutter. Glove knocks glove.” Nanton compels his audience with images plucked straight from the greenery, chaos, and market-stalls of Caribbean living, whether he turns his attention to a topsy-turvy police station or a troupe of outlandishly named minibuses.

In “Canouan Suite”, for which the book is named, the poet trains a sharply critical eye on the clutches of foreign investment in a small-island community. A chorus of voices populates the poem, from the bone-weary hotel worker to the cavalier, dispassionate outsider who calls the island “a pocket-handkerchief of a place.” The poem is a powerful admonition that lets its own characters speak; it highlights Nanton’s lyrical virtuosity without dampening his message.

Canouan Suite and Other Pieces warns against the real dangers in calling any place, Caribbean or otherwise, a “paradise.” Despite this grave counsel, the book opens itself to wonder at every turn, proving that when easy labels are discarded, the deepest cistern of an island’s heart spills over.

 

The Yard, by Aliyyah Eniath (Speaking Tiger Books, 272 pp, ISBN 9789385755088)

If the closeness of one nuclear family stirs up confusion in the domestic cauldron of everyday living, how much worse is it when your neighbours on all sides are your blood relations, too? In Aliyyah Eniath’s fiction debut, the intricacies and entanglements of “compound life” — many families in one unsegregated dwelling expanse — are scrutinised through the crosshairs of love, duty, and religious devotion. Orphaned Behrooz and privileged Maya form a bond reminiscent of literature’s finest and most thwarted of beloveds. The Yard lifts a veil on Indo-Muslim Trinidad: its customs, ceremonies, and concerns are sensitively penned and elegantly conveyed. Written with the joviality of a comedy of errors, yet underpinned by wry commentary on society’s need for speculation, this first novel shines with promise.

 

The Taxidermist’s Cut, by Rajiv Mohabir (Four Way Books, 112 pp, ISBN 9781935536727)

In one of the poems of this first collection, a speaker confesses: “I admit failure to a friend: I have never spelled love with another in the tangle of my own limbs.” Rajiv Mohabir, who traces his immediate ancestry to Guyana, writes with boundless appetite about the new New World of Indo-Caribbean identities. These poems do not claim fearlessness: they siphon audacious admissions and erotic offerings from the very maw of fear itself. Contending with anti-queer, anti-immigrant, anti-brown judgements, they explode into bhajans and bass rhymes of verse. The speakers in them are often restless, distanced from their natal beginnings and curious about their shifting postal addresses. It is this curiosity, this desire to claim names from the erasure and indemnity of East Indian indentureship in the West Indies, which gives this extraordinary debut its wings.

 

Michael Manley: The Biography, by Godfrey Smith (Ian Randle Publishers, 458 pp, ISBN 9789766379223)

Statesman par excellence; passionate public official and private man; egalitarian trade unionist; prolific author; all-around dynamo: twenty years after his death, Michael Manley remains one of the most compelling figures in Caribbean political life, past or present. In this new biography, Godfrey Smith takes a sequential, probing approach to documenting Manley’s life as Jamaican prime minister and policy maker. What sets Smith’s consummately readable biography apart is its undaunted willingness to tell the full truth of one remarkable man’s orbit. Everything from a string of marriages to pioneering economic reform is weighted, addressed, and assessed as valuable material for the reader’s reflection. Many accounts of Manley position him beyond the reach of everyday Jamaicans: this unassumingly titled book brings a humanising light to its often-inscrutable subject, stripping the titan of any one, easy signification.

 

A Handbook of Trinidad Cookery 1907, edited by Danielle Delon (Cassique Publications, 156 pp, ISBN 9789769541559)

Mrs Ross’s Spanish Custard and Miss Doyle’s Callaloo: these sound like your auntie’s time-honoured, jealously guarded family recipes, but they’re actually two of the culinary contributions in A Handbook of Trinidad Cookery 1907. Danielle Delon has dusted off the original 1907 compilation of this kitchen handbook, and faithfully repurposed it for any contemporary chef with an interest in Caribbean cuisine. The book is illuminatory not only as a cookery guide, but as a historic passport to the conventions of French Creole and British immigrant householders, who adapted their palates to the particular mélange of verdure, wild game, and seasonings available at the time. Even its outdated recipes offer clues to the way Trinidad’s kitchens, and by extension Trinidad’s domestic spheres, once operated: every concoction and confection within these pages is worth its weight in sugar and spice.