Book reviews (March/April 2008)

Reviews of new and recent books from and about the Caribbean

book-reviews-90-1_0George Graham. Photograph courtesy The Tampa Tribune/Greg FightJoanne Haynes. Photograph courtesy Macmillan CaribbeanLondon-born Yvonne Weekes. Photograph courtesy Peepal Tree Press

The nature of the beast

I’m a town boy, born and raised. Growing up, my encounters with nature were usually limited to taking the lawnmower for a spin around the garden of our suburban home. That chore did little to give my bookish self a better appreciation of the great outdoors, as the time I mistook my mother’s nascent herb garden for a patch of weeds amply illustrated. Even now, when I go on a nature hike or trek, I have the sense of not being quite in my element.

So it was with a feeling akin to vindication that I read Richard ffrench’s admission, in the foreword to A Naturalist’s Year, that his interest in natural history developed relatively late in life. Born in England, ffrench lived in Trinidad and Tobago from 1958–1985, and was one of the country’s foremost naturalists. His area of expertise was avifauna; his magisterial A Guide to the Birds of Trinidad and Tobago remains the subject’s bible.

The present volume, unlike that tome, is not a specialist reference work. It is instead a concise and immensely readable collection of essays on the natural life found throughout Trinidad and Tobago.

The essays are arranged to follow the cycle of the seasons, hence the title. The writer seems to have covered every inch of these islands, and writes as one constantly in awe and open to delight as he makes his way through forests, up mountains, along beaches and around his own garden. No plant or, particularly, animal, is too insignificant, commonplace or unprepossessing—note the illustration of a crapaud on the cover, one of a number of drawings here by the author’s wife, Margaret—to warrant his attentions. Naturally (pardon the pun), the better known species get their due, with pieces on the leatherback turtle, the manatee, and an encounter with possibly the very last bird-of-paradise on Little Tobago.

“There is no need,” asserts ffrench, “to pass any examinations or gain any qualifications in order to become a naturalist.”

Or to enjoy this book. Coming from someone who isn’t exactly the epitome of the outdoors type, that’s no mean recommendation.

A Naturalist’s Year by Richard ffrench
(Prospect Press, ISBN 976-95082-0-9, 173pp)

Jonathan Ali

The mountain was her muse

This slim volume calls itself a memoir of a woman whose life was affected by the volcanic eruption of Montserrat’s Soufrière in 1995. Weekes was born in London of Montserratian parentage and she grew up there and in Montserrat.

She describes herself as writer, performance poet, actor and educator, and all these identities take turns at directing this intensely personal narrative.

Essentially a journal of the experience of being in Montserrat during the period leading to the devastating eruption and her attempts to restructure life afterwards, the book shifts tone continually, a reflection of how each situation invoked a different aspect of her character.

Whatever the difficulty or her approach to it, from setting up theatrical performances so the dispossessed could pass the time, to scrubbing stubborn ash from her new car every single day— Weekes keeps faith with the poet inside her. Thus, her descriptions, her laments, her curses and remedies are infused with a conscious lyricism that suggests that the artist’s eye takes precedence over all else, whatever the travails.

The book opens with her comings and goings between London and Montserrat, first in childhood, then as an adult trying to get a grip on the landscape that is cascading bleakly around her. Feeling helpless, she takes her son off to stay with his father in London, then returns and promptly regrets it, eventually reclaiming him from disapproving relatives.

She is Director of Culture, working out of a secondary school that also houses 200 people; and seeing the plight of these waiting souls, under the heaviness of an uncertainty further weighted by omnipresent black ash, she begins to rethink her role. She forms a group of strolling players who go round to some of the 26 shelters putting on shows to help people cope.

The relocation of all her friends, her son’s anger over her hectic schedule, and exhaustion finally cause her to pack up and go to Barbados as a student. An explosion in Montserrat changes the course of her research and she shifts it to crisis management, returning to Montserrat to gather data and finding out how inadequate preparations were.

Caribbean people have not had much by way of counselling on how to cope with disasters arising from the forces of nature. No hurricane or earthquake guides explain the psychological effects or how to cope with them. How does one leave a life behind? How to start afresh? In its honesty and frankness, this book could be helpful in the way it maps this journey, especially in these days of extremes.

At times, Weekes slips into a journalist’s tone as she relates events; when she rails against the British Government’s indifference, she is the voice of righteous indignation; over her son and her friends, deep concern scrambles out of her fear.

Her writing becomes her solace and outlet. “The mountain is my muse,” she writes, even though it haunts her sleep. Poetry is woven into her prose, sometimes conventionally, sometimes simply by the sheer force of her lyricism. This is what makes the book stand out as more than a memoir of a turbulent time.

Volcano Yvonne Weekes
(Peepal Tree Press, ISBN: 1-84523-037-X, 111pp)

Vaneisa Baksh

Norman, is that you?

In the mood for a lighthearted fable about Caribbean governance? Try Hill-an’-Gully Rider. The new novel is by George Graham, a retired Jamaican journalist who now lives in the US, and though it sounds like a contradiction to put “lighthearted” and “governance” in the same sentence, Graham manages to pull it off. His book is a fictionalised biography of a prime minister and sports hero who bears some resemblance to Norman Manley, the architect of Jamaican independence.

Set in some hazy time between the Forties and the Eighties (there are donkey carts rubbing bumpers with MGs, and the mento song of the title comes mere years before the advent of hip hop, instead of a generation before), the book is a whimsical look at what would have happened if Jamaica had followed a different path. As Graham would have it, industrialisation is bad, tourism is good; the music industry can radically uplift the ghetto and curb the dons; and one man really can change the world. That man, in this book, is not the white would-be PM, but the power behind the throne, an ambitious black man named Benjamin.

While it’s not destined to be a Caribbean classic—its authorial voice is annoyingly smug and the narration glosses over developments in the plot far too often—it’s a quick and easy read. It also proposes an interesting system of consultative politics that could bear consideration as an alternative in our too-often charisma-driven leadership systems.

Hill-an’-Gully Rider George Graham
(Lulu (print on demand service: www.lulu.com) ISBN 978-1-4303-2346-4, 271pp)

Lisa Allen-Agostini

A plodding debut

Trinidadian author Joanne Haynes has been celebrated as one of the top ten emerging writers of the Caribbean and was a finalist in the Commonwealth Short Story Competition of 2002–3.

Considering that prestige, her debut novel Walking proves disappointingly light. Haynes’ coming-of-age tale of a half-Chinese, half-black girl in south Trinidad during the Eighties is entertaining and intriguing, but somehow unsatisfying. While it is a stirring story—she perfectly details little Josephine’s terror of the nuns in her first school and older Josephine’s rebellious trysts with various boyfriends behind her mother’s back—the book never quite delivers on its promise. She alludes to conflict but never fleshes it out, even in such central themes as race and belonging.

The book also loses momentum in the latter half. While we get into young Josephine’s inner life, we never really meet the woman she becomes, although the book ends when she is a grown-up. Children of the Eighties might enjoy the book in spite of these shortcomings, as Haynes does a wicked job of describing the life of a Caribbean teen during the decade.

Walking Joanne Haynes
(Macmillan Caribbean, ISBN 978-1-4050-6781-2, 200pp)

Crimes against writing

Most Wanted: Street Stories from the Caribbean, a collection of short stories by the Dominican Christborne Shillingford, attempts to be a humorous take on crime in the green island of the Caribbean, published by Dominican/UK house Papillote Press.

However, reading the book becomes more painful with each page. Shillingford has the right idea—his persona is a smug, know-it-all writer who dabbles in criminal investigation, often with hilariously disastrous results—but the technical details of good writing elude him. He relies on clichés rather than doing the real work of building characters and describing plot and setting, and whatever charm this slim book might have started with quickly evaporates in the face of a plethora of completely extraneous brackets and inappropriate quotation marks, to name some of the more irritating conventions this book uses.

Most Wanted: Street Stories from the Caribbean Christborne Shillingford
(Papillote Press, ISBN 0-9532224-3-8, 978-0-9532224-3-8, 148pp)

Lisa Allen-Agostini