BOOK REVIEWS

The Star Side of Bird Hill by Naomi Jackson

“Loving a country besides the one you lived in was a recipe for disaster.”

The Star Side of Bird Hill is an enjoyable coming-of-age novel about two sisters, Dionne and Phaedra, who are sent off by their mother to spend their summer with their grandmother, Hyacinth, in a small town in Barbados. The girls’ aren’t too happy to leave Brooklyn, even if their homelife hasn’t been great given that their mother, who is suffering from depression and no longer works, can’t look after them (or herself for the matter). In Bird Hill they are forced to acclimatise to a different culture, and are often treated as foreign by their grandmother’s community. Although Phaedra, who is 10, misses her mum, she soon grows attached to Hyacinth, especially once she learns how vital a role she plays in the community. Fifteen-year-old Dionne on the other hand, repeatedly clashes with Hyacinth and her rules. Even if she resents her mother, for having sent her away and for forcing her to take care of both her and Phaedra, she’s clearly hurting.
As the summer goes by the two sisters adapt to life in Bird Hill. Phaedra, who is made fun of by other young girls for being a bit of a tomboy, finds fulfilment in learning more of her family’s history and of her grandmother’s job as a midwife. Dionne takes far longer to adjust to Bird Hill and their grandmother’s presence. She flaunts her rules and seems intent on being as difficult as possible. After certain events happen, she too begins to reconcile herself with her life in Bird Hill and Hyacinth.
Throughout the course of the novel we are given flashbacks into the girls’ childhood as well as the start and end of their mother’s relationship with their father.

“You practice being one kind of thing too long, and soon enough that’s who you become.”

While the storyline is somewhat conventional of this ‘coming-of-age’ genre, the author injects vitality into her story thanks to the character of Hyacinth and the vividly rendered setting of Bird Hill. Hyacinth was a force of nature (and funny too: “Oh Lord, please deliver me from these Yankee children”). I loved her no-nonsense attitude and the many wisdoms she imparts on her granddaughters. Phaedra too was a likeable character (who likes reading Jamaica Kincaid, always a plus in my books), who had a clear personality from the get-go. Dionne, in comparison, was a far weaker character. She’s very much the epitome of rebellious and angsty teenager who spends most of her time disrespecting her elders and thinking about sex. Which is fair enough, but because Hyacinth and Phaedra weren’t relegated to their ‘grandmother’ or ‘young child’ role, Dionne’s poor characterisation—which hinges on her being a teenager—stood out.
The writing was heavy on the ‘telling’ and light on the ‘showing’. Conversations are summarised rather than being ‘played’ on the page, and because the third-person narrative switches from character-to-charcater the same events or information would be repeated over the course of a few pages. The flashbacks could have been better integrated within the narrative, as they often broke the flow of the story, and gave us chunks of backstory that could have been portioned out more uniformly.
Still, I liked reading about Bird Hill, Hyacinth, and Phaedra. And even if the story touches on topics such as mental illnesses, it did so without delving too deep in them, so that it maintained an overall lighthearted, if bittersweet, tone.
I would probably recommend it to readers who enjoyed Frying Plantain or other novel that focus on family relationships between women (mother/daughters, granddaughters/grandmothers).

MY RATING 3 / 5 stars

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BOOK REVIEWS

The Veins of the Ocean by Patricia Engel

“I want to be forgotten. I want it to feel as if I’ve never existed. I want to be a stranger. Rootless.”

A few days before reading The Veins of the Ocean I read, and enjoyed reading, Patricia Engel’s Vida, a collection of short stories centred on a Colombian-American woman. I was intrigued by the premise of The Veins of the Ocean and the first chapters were deeply affecting. I was captivated by the understated lyricism of Engel’s prose, by Reina’s interiority and the reflections she makes by revisiting her past and her relationship with her difficult older brother.
After her brother is sentenced to death, Reina puts her life on hold. She works during the week and spends her weekends in a depressing motel close to Carlito’s prison. In spite of her brother’s heinous crime, Reina, unlike her mother, can’t cut him loose. During her visits, Carlito reveals to her the inhumane conditions of solitary confinement. After his death, Reina struggles to adjust to a life without him. She moves to a small community in Florida Keys and seems resigned to live a lonely existence until she comes across Nesto, an exiled Cuban who longs to be reunited with his children.
The narrative moves between past and present, sometimes seamlessly, sometimes a little more clumsily. As Reina tries to adapt to her new life, she’s forced to confront her own role in Carlito’s crime. As she reconciles herself with her own failures, and those of her loved ones, Reina finds the courage to truly live.
I loved the atmosphere, tone, and setting of this novel. The narrative had an almost lulling dreamlike quality that brought to mind the works of Ann Patchett. Reina too, could easily belong to a Patchett novel. Although she may appear to be a rather directionless individual, her sensitivity make her into an affecting character.
Sadly, I wasn’t all that enamoured with the men in this novel, in particular Reina’s love interest(s). Reina would often only belatedly introduce us to these characters, making their presence in the story feel rather sudden. These characters often are not given any direct dialogue, and their experiences and words are re-elaborated by Reina herself (she will say ‘he told me this’ or ‘he said this and that’). They often don’t appear in scenes as such, and Reina is merely thinking of what they told her. They felt kind of uninspired and forgettable. I also didn’t see the point in Dr. Joe. He has a very small role at the beginning of the novel, and yet Reina will often think back to his words in order to make sense of something (she will think ‘according to Dr. Joe Carlito did this because x’). And maybe it could have worked if his character had been a bit more fleshed out…but he had a hurried appearance which didn’t cast him in a very positive light.
Then we have Nesto…the main love interest. And I kind of hated him for 95% of the novel. He is condescending, quick to minimise Reina’s feelings or experiences (saying ‘you’re not Cuban, you grew up in America, you can’t understand’). He seems very uninterested in Reina’s painful past, flat out telling her that he doesn’t want to hear about it, and that for him she came into being that night they first met (“for me, you were born the day I met you. Nothing before that counts”). And yet he excepts her to listen to his own past, the difficulties he overcame, and his present struggles. The only times he didn’t make me roll my eyes, and want to strangle him, were when he spoke about the Orishas. His nuggets of wisdom however were banal at best: “To be human is to be imperfect”, the secret to life is “love”.
Later in the narrative he also tells Reina that she has “a debt to pay to Yemayá for your family”. Which, is king of crap thing to say. I just found him obnoxious and unsupportive.

What could have been a moving and incisive tale is let down by too much telling and not a lot of showing and by an extremely irritating love interest (curiously enough I found the love interests in Vida to be just as tiresome) who made me want to wish for a different ending for Reina (her happiness seems to completely hinge on their relationship…which yikes).

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Frying Plantain by Zalika Reid-Benta

“I wondered if all daughters fought with their mothers this way when they grew up.”

Frying Plantain presents its readers with a vibrant coming-of-age. Through the course of twelve chapters Zalika Reid-Benta captures a girl’s transition from childhood to adolescence into young adulthood. But this is far from a conventional Bildungsroman as within each chapter Reid-Benta hones in on a particular moment of her protagonist’s life, playing with perspective and style.
Kara Davis, a second-generation Canadian, feels divided between her Canadian nationality and her Jamaican heritage. Kara lives in Toronto with her hardworking single mother. Everyone Kara knows seems to find fault with her: her relatives, her mother in particular, scold her for her “impertinence”, while her peers often tease her for being too “soft” or a goody two shoes.
In most chapters Kara learns a lesson of sorts. In the opening chapter Kara, who has just returned from a trip to Jamaica, begins to tell a rather tall tale about a pig head to impress her classmates and her neighbourhood’s children (who aren’t as gullible as the white kids). As her story becomes increasingly fantastical, she lands herself in a spot of trouble. In the following chapter, which takes place a few years later, Kara becomes the victim of a cruel prank by her ‘friends’. Another chapter revolves around a somewhat tense Christmas dinner at her grandparents house.
While the chapters can be read as a series self-contained narratives, read as a whole Frying Plantain provides its reader with a detailed and nuanced story of growing up. The fraught mother-daughter bond between Kara and her mother is present at each stage of Kara’s life. This pressure to succeed, to excel, drives Kara and her mother apart. Kara’s mother too has a troubled relationship with her mother. While the tension between these women often results in disagreements and fights, Reid-Benta conveys the love and affection that underlines their ‘difficult’ relationships (mothers wanting their daughters to achieve what they themselves couldn’t).
Reid-Benta vividly renders family tensions, the gap between generations, the self-divide created by Kara’s Canadian nationality and her Black identity. The realism of Reid-Benta dialogues was utterly captivating. During the first chapters I was struck by Reid-Benta’s ability to so accurately portray a child’s mind.
The last few chapters did loose me somewhat as I was more interested in Kara’s early experiences.
Nevertheless this is a great debut novel and I look forward to reading whatever Reid-Benta will write next.

My rating: 3 ¾ stars

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Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid

“Everything I could see looked unreal to me; everything I could see made me feel I would never be part of it, never penetrate to the inside, never be taken in.”

From the very first page, I was enthralled by Lucy’s deceptively simple narration. To begin with, I was struck by the clarity of her observations and the directness of her statements. As I kept reading, however, I came to realise just how enigmatic a character she was.

“Oh, I had imagined that with my one swift act—leaving home and coming to this new place—I could leave behind me, as if it were an old garment never to be worn again, my sad thoughts, my sad feelings, and my discontent with life in general as it presented itself to me.”

After leaving her homeland, an unnamed island in the West Indies, Lucy becomes an au pair for a white and wealthy couple in North America. Although Lucy wants to leave her past behind, her alienating new surroundings make her homesick. Lucy tries to acclimatise to the colder climate, to American’s strange customs, to her new role. As she tries to adjust to her new home, she becomes closer to her employer, Mariah. Her obliviousness, however, frustrates Lucy as Mariah seems incapable or unwilling to acknowledge her privilege or their cultural differences, seeming content to live in a bubble.
Lucy strikes a friendship with Peggy, a young woman from Ireland. While the two share a sense of otherness (“From the moment we met we had recognized in each other the same restlessness, the same dissatisfaction with our surroundings, the same skin-doesn’t-fit-ness.”), Peggy is far more of a bohemian. Lucy’s relationship with Mariah begins to fray, partly because of Peggy’s influence, partly due to Lucy’s growing disillusionment towards her employers and their after all not-so-perfect marriage.
As Lucy recounts her time as an au pair, her mind often drifts towards her childhood. We know that her strained relationship with her mother had an enormous impact on her, but we are only given glimpses of their time together. As Lucy attempts to navigate her new life, we come to learn why she has become so unwilling to be truly known by others. Through what we learn of her past, and through the things she leaves unspoken, we begin to understand Lucy’s obliqueness, her remoteness, her alienation, her self-division (which she describes as a “two-facedness: that is, outside I seemed one way, inside I was another; outside false, inside true”), her attitude towards others and her sexuality.
Lucy is an unremittingly ambiguous and fascinating character-study. Kincaid’s polished prose is deeply alluring: from the evocative descriptions of the weather to Lucy’s penetrating deliberations.
I was also drawn by the parallels Kincaid makes between Lucy and Villette (which happens to be one of my favourite novels of all time). Kincaid’s Lucy leaves her homeland to become an au pair, while Brontë’s Lucy leaves England to become a teacher in a small town in Belgium. Both women are ambivalent towards their past and disinclined to let others know who they are or what they ‘feel’. They both experience a sense of displacement and have to adapt to another culture. They also both become ‘involved’ with men who are called Paul (Brontë’s Paul owns a slave plantation). In many ways, Lucy functions as a reworking of Villette, as it subverts its colonial narrative (more than once Lucy’s informs us of the inadequacy of her British colonial education) and provides a more modern exploration of gender roles, sexuality, and sexual repression.

“I had begun to see the past like this: there is a line; you can draw it yourself, or sometimes it gets drawn for you; either way, there it is, your past, a collection of people you used to be and things you used to do. Your past is the person you no longer are, the situations you are no longer in.”

Throughout the course of Lucy’s tale Kincaid examines the way in which one’s family can affect an individual’s self-perception and the damage that parental favouritism has on a child’s self-worth.
Kincaid’s Lucy is an incessantly intriguing novel. I was mesmerised by her prose, by her inscrutable main character, and by the opaqueness and lucidity of her narrative.
Kincaid beautifully articulates Lucy’s feelings—her desire, contempt, guilt, despair—without ever revealing too much. Lucy retains an air of unknowability. Similarly, the mother-daughter bond that is at the heart of the novel remains shrouded in mystery.

My rating: 4 ½ stars (rounded up)

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Everything Inside: Stories by Edwidge Danticat

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“The difference between her and them was as stark as the gulf between those who’d escaped a catastrophe unscathed and others who’d been forever mutilated by it.”

This was such a wonderful and poignant collection of short stories.
In a interview on LitHub Edwige Danticat said that one of the reasons why she loves the short story form is that it allows her “to magnify smaller moments and to linger on these small epiphanies in the smaller interactions that mean so much”, and indeed each one of her stories seems to prolong a particular moment in her characters’ lives.
Given the brevity of her stories Danticat doesn’t wast any words. And yet, while her writing could be described as both economic and simple, her prose also demonstrated a richness of expression that resonated with the feelings and scenarios experienced by her characters.

Through the wide range of her narratives Danticat examines similar themes in very different ways. Within her stories Danticat navigates the way in which bonds are tested, broken, or strengthened in times of crisis. Most of Danticat’s narratives are concerned in particular with the diasporic experiences of Haitians in America, and she emphasises the feelings of longing, loneliness, and displacement experienced by those who are forced to adapt to a new country and a different culture with poignancy and clarity. They are never reduced to the status of ‘outsider’, and while their shared heritage does mean that they may have had similar experiences, each one of them has a distinctive voice and a particular relationships with the countries they currently inhabit.
With seeming ease Danticat imbues her characters with their own history and personalities, so that within a few pages we would feel as if we’d know them personally, so much so that to define them as characters seems almost an injustice.
Within these narratives the ordinary moments that make up everyday life can carry both enlightening and tragic overtones. These stories centre on the characters’ anxieties, hopes, and fears they may harbour for themselves or their loved ones.
In “Dosas” Elsie, a nurse’s assistant, is betrayed by her husband and her own best friend. Months later her now ex-husband calls her and begs her to help pay the ransom for his kidnapped girlfriend, who happens to be Elsie’s former friend. His increasingly desperate calls threaten to disrupt the course of her life.
In “The Port-au-Prince Marriage Special” a woman who has returned to Haiti to run a hotel with her husband is confronted with her own privilege when her young nanny is diagnosed with AIDS; the woman has to reconcile herself with her own misjudgement regarding her nanny’s mother and with her preference for a white doctor over a local one.
In “Hot-Air Balloons” we observe the bond between two young women, one of which has started to work for Leve a women’s organisation in which she witnesses the most brutal aspects of humanity. Still, even when we are presented with these stark accounts of abuse or suffering the story maintains a sense of hope in the genuine relationship between these two women.
Another story that examines the bond between two women is “Seven Stories”. After publishing a short story a writer is contacted by her childhood friend Callie, the daughter of the prime minister of an unnamed island. After her father’s assassination Callie was forced to flee from the island and years later our narrator is invited by her friend who has by now married the island’s new prime minister.

“I didn’t have to think too much about this. I already knew. I am the girl—the woman—who is always going to be looking for stability, a safe harbor. I am never going to forget that I can easily lose everything I have, including my life, in one instant. But this is not what I told her. I told her that I was going to be the kind of friend she could always count on.”

The characters in Danticat’s stories are often confronted with impossible choices. Within their realities they are forced to contend against betrayal, illnesses, the devastating earthquake of 2010, medical malpractice, kidnappings, and the risks that come with being ‘undocumented’. They are made vulnerable by their status or haunted by the knowledge that the world can be a terrible place. Still, while there were many moments of unease, the stories always maintain a vibrancy that made them hard to put down. Her characters demonstrated empathy, love, and compassion so that her stories never felt bleak or hopeless.

I can’t recommend this collection enough. These stories were both upsetting and moving, and within each narrative we follow how a certain ‘change’ forces each character to reassess their own existence. The crisis they experience are depicted with subtlety and consideration. Danticat interrogates serious themes (identity, mortality, grief) whilst focusing on ordinary moments. Phone conversations and dinners become the backdrop for larger debates. Her narratives illuminate the complexities faced by those who are born, or raised, in a country that is now in crisis.
A heart-rendering collection of stories that provided me with a lot food for thought and which I will be definitely reading again.

2nd reading:
I have now read it again and I found as compelling as the first time. This may be the first collection of short stories I’ve ever re-read and it surprised by how many details had stayed with me from the first reading.

MY RATING: 4 ½ stars

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