Caribbean Bookshelf (November/December 2006)

Marie-Elena John’s debut novel Unburnable, and the glamorous photographs of adopted Tobagonian Norman Parkinson

–Marie-Elena John. Photograph courtesy Amstad

Unburnable: A Novel

Marie-Elena John (Amistad, ISBN 0-06-083757-8, 292 pp)

Unburnable is the first novel by young Antiguan writer Marie-Elena John. Although it is, by turns, a love story, a romantic thriller, and a historical romance, there is a certain point in the novel when the reader forsakes all expectations of a generic “happy ending”, surrendering willingly to the seductions of a suspenseful narrative with its unexpected twists and unforeseeable outcome.

For me, that moment arrives when a woman watching a masquerade band turns to her mother with the word, “Clash.” I knew I was in for something beyond romantic or historical or thrilling. This chapter, which dramatises old mas in Dominica from a succession of points of view — the fearful masquerader suffocating under his layers, his watchful wife filled with premonition, the wife’s supercilious mother — contains also the masterstroke of the colonial officer whose West African experience gives him an insight into the true meaning of the wooden masks and the drums, watching in horrified fascination (as do we) as the death ritual plays itself out.

For other readers, the moment of frisson might well arise earlier, with the savage vengeance taken by an outraged upper-class Creole mother for her daughter’s public humiliation at the hands of her husband’s outside woman. Like a well-plotted detective story, the novel offers the reader the pleasure of deciding how to make sense of clues and when to make the leap of faith into a different kind of story. The narrative operates on two levels, then and now. Then takes us back to the 1930s, and involves an obeah-woman grandmother and her prostitute daughter in Dominica. Now focuses on two diasporic figures in Washington, DC: Teddy, a successful African-American historian, and Lillian, Dominican-born and American-educated, heir to the reverberating secrets and hidden history of then.

The peculiar atmosphere of Dominican fiction, familiar from the work of Jean Rhys and Phyllis Shand Allfrey, is shared by Unburnable, and leads us to ask what it is about Dominica that produces the blend of passionate attachment and ambiguous distance that characterises them. Dominica offers John, like the earlier writers, a society on the margins, still relatively unpolluted by global capitalism and cultural imperialism, extraordinarily beautiful, culturally distinct. It’s to her credit that she succeeds in conveying all this without exoticising it.

The novel’s title and central symbol is an African transposition. Lillian wears a pair of talismanic cufflinks made by an African goldsmith to an Adinkra design called Hye won Hye: “that which does not burn”. This ambiguous symbol, simultaneously invoking fire and the permanence that resists it, has both a material and a spiritual meaning. From Dominica itself, with its Boiling Lake and Soufrière — a land with fire in its belly — to Lillian’s stepmother’s burning hand, to Lillian’s belief in the survival of the spirit, the metaphor stitches the narrative together.

 

Jane Bryce


 

Norman Parkinson: Portraits in Fashion

Robin Muir, with a foreword by Iman (National Portrait Gallery, ISBN 1-85514-525-1, 192 pp)

Readers of a certain age may remember Norman Parkinson (1913–1990) as one of the greatest fashion and portrait photographers of his time. He documented much of the cultural life of the twentieth century, became the preferred photographer of Britain’s royal family, photographed hundreds of celebrities from Ava Gardner to Muhammad Ali and the Beatles, and helped to turn photography from a humble trade into a glamorous profession.

What is less well known about this quintessential English gentleman is that he lived for nearly 25 years in Tobago, in a wonderful house high above the sea on the island’s north-west coast. From there he would sally forth on assignments for Vogue, Harpers, or Town & Country. He became a familiar fixture in the local community, and even arranged a burial plot for himself on the headland opposite the house. He went into pig farming, and marketed his “Porkinson Bangers” in Tobago stores. At Carnival time he could usually be found in Port of Spain with the “rum section” at the back of Stephen Lee Heung’s band.

Six feet five inches tall, looking with his white moustache like an Edwardian brigadier, always elegant, Parkinson invented an eccentric public persona for himself which he updated constantly. He charmed his subjects with conspiratorial humour, and the way they responded to him showed in the photographs. A consummate professional, he insisted that photography was not an art but a craft; his images (so carefully prepared) just happened, he would say, and the pictures would not come out at all unless he was wearing his Kashmiri wedding cap.

London’s National Portrait Gallery has published a very handsome selection of Parkinson’s photographs, with an introduction and biographical sketches by the curator and writer Robin Muir and an introduction by one of Parkinson’s favourite models, Iman. The images are a joy, not least because so many of them are witty, surreal, mischievous, or plain crazy.

Jeremy Taylor