Bookshelf (May/June 2017) | Book Reviews

This month’s reading picks in our books column

AugustownHere Comes the SunMorning, ParaminTravels with a HusbandAching to Be

Augustown by Kei Miller

Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 256 pp, ISBN 9781474603591

In Augustown — a place which is at once like the real-life August Town, and its own creation altogether — Kei Miller brings us a tale taller than moko jumbie stilts: one of preachermen who can ascend heavenward with nothing more than the seeds of their faith to buoy them. Miller’s novel takes the historic truth-kernel of Jamaican Revivalist preacher Alexander Bedward and fashions it into not a myth, but a versioning of truth that might have been left out of colonial schoolbooks. Acts of miraculous faith occupy the same space as symbolic gestures of defiant hatred: a schoolteacher struggling with his own demons scissors off the dreadlocks of a young boy-child, casting a close-knit community into an uneasy limbo of power-plays and dire confrontations. Through this unravelling of hair and safety, the novel’s warning could not be plainer: it takes more than faith, even the kind that eclipses gravity, to right wrongs that are as old as slavery, and as toxic to the human spirit.

The omniscient speaker of Augustown tells us: “But always there was this divide between the stories that were written and stories that were spoken — stories that smelt of snow and faraway places, and stories that had the smell of their own breath.” Through the voice of blind seerwoman Ma Taffy, whose own emtombed ciphers could fell those in the highest of offices, that spoken history comes blinking into the written light, in prose that compels and uplifts.

 

Here Comes the Sun, by Nicole Dennis-Benn

Liveright, 352 pp, ISBN 9781631491764

Nicole Dennis-Benn’s debut novel trains a rifle-scope on the Jamaican tourism industry, pointing several accusatory fingers at those who oil its well-greased cogs for profit. In her examination of the lives of a Jamaican matriarch, Delores, and her two daughters, Margot and Thandi, Dennis-Benn grabs concerns of colourism and sexual exploitation by the roots, revealing how they infuse the daily lives of this small, fraught family. Margot, who anchors Here Comes the Sun’s storytelling bulwark, is a confidently mapped anti-heroine: a perilous warning of the dangers of survival at any cost; a portrait of complex and courageous womanhood in a world where no male saviours are either realistic or forthcoming. Dennis-Benn’s debut mightily resists the interpretation of Jamaica as just one thing: neither paradise nor ghetto, neither slum nor idyllic resort. In this novel, the spaces between social classes, between women and all the secrets they keep buried, tell the most turbulent of truths.

 

Morning, Paramin, by Derek Walcott and Peter Doig

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 120 pp, ISBN 9780374213428

In Morning, Paramin, almost all the roads lead to home. This hybrid collection of poems and paintings combines the work of 1992 Nobel laureate Derek Walcott, who died in March, and Scottish figurative painter Peter Doig. These, the final poems of Walcott’s to be published in his lifetime, reveal not only a preoccupation with death, but an unstinting, wide-eyed acceptance of what might lie beyond the veil. Walcott’s verse meets Doig’s oil and tempera paintings with humour, ribald self-reflection, pathos, and open sentimentality. These are poems that do not apologise to anyone, celebrating a friendship between poet and painter, offering Trinidad in all its colour, noise, and surprising quiescence to Doig as “a country full of paintable names: / Paramin, Fyzabad, Couva, where the trees rhyme . . . where headstones multiply like sails on a Sunday, / where a widower tacks under a pink parasol, / where people think pain or pan is good for the soul.”

 

Travels with a Husband, by Patricia Mohammed and Rex Dixon

Hansib Publications, 216 pp, ISBN 9781910553695

The difference between tourists and travellers is an emotional one: to travel consciously often means to eschew five-star comforts for deeper illuminations. Such is the case in this charmingly well-considered book of journeys from Trinidadian scholar Patricia Mohammed and her artist husband, London-born Rex Dixon. Whether they contemplate the sobering realities of quotidian life in Haiti, or offer letters and tributes to the figures who have touched their twinned lives (as in the moving “Letter to Vincent”, the master painter van Gogh), the views in Travels with a Husband embrace the unknown. Avoiding the prescriptive, this memoir in passport stamps circumnavigates stations of the globe through the ebb and flow of seasons, political affiliations, shifting languages, and personal passions. Allowing the reader in with humour-leavened humility, and the possibility of a new horizon peeking around each corner, here is a guide for all true sojourners of both vast regions and domestic plains.

 

Aching to Be, by Andrew J. Fitt

Ponies and Horses Books, 60 pp, ISBN 9781910631492

St Lucia-born, Trinidad-based writer and visual artist Andrew J. Fitt was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at nine months old. Despite this pronouncement, which would directly impact the ambit of his childhood and adult life, Aching to Be is not a litany of woes. In clear, crisply self-aware prose, Fitt traces his life with CP using a winning blend of dispassionate observation and perfectly timed jokes at his own expense. Miniature in comparison to many other memoirs, Fitt’s account of his struggles and successes is a careful and shrewd paragraph-by-paragraph reckoning, where every word counts. There is a dearth of literature in the Caribbean written by people who live with neurological disorders; Aching to Be stands in that lacuna as a necessary installment from an undaunted, engaging voice.