by Margaret Cezair-Thompson
I have finally decided that I’m glad I read this book after going to Jamaica. The island country explodes from the pages, it’s mountains and beaches and reggae roads thrumming with the rhythm of African drums, bumping car wheels, goats bleating, feet running, dancing, and the musical lilt of patois. I was sent whirligiging back, and got to see and hear Jamaica come alive again in flashes I recognized and ones that were new to me. History, culture, and people blurred before my eyes. The book is crammed full of JAMAICA, and whether you’ve been to the country or not, a major pleasure of reading it will come from getting to dive right into the rumpus of life there.
There in 1981 and the years before, anyway. This is a multi-generational, multi-century, multi-narrative story. Jean Landing, and her trip across Jamaica on a spring day in 1981, is the thread tying it all together, but the story leaps backwards and forwards throughout the history of the island and the Landing and Darling-Stern families.
In the present day Jean has decided to leave Jamaica, putting behind her it’s political upheaval and terrible violence, the streets and houses full of the ghosts of her family (including her tormented older sister), the calculating and imperious gaze of her mother, her beloved blue mountains, and a man who has been and will always be her dearest friend. She travels with Paul from Kingston across the island to Montego Bay, where her flight to America awaits. Roadblocks and soldiers bar their path, mountainous roads send them curling into the jungle – where more ghosts lie in wait – and all along the way Jean finds herself slipping constantly into a parallel journey through her memories and her stories.
Her family history is volatile, a thunderous meeting of race and social standing – African slaves, Chinese immigrants, wealthy Englishmen, Indian merchants, scholars, farmers, madwomen, preachers… Most of the folks whose names crop up on the complex family tree at the start of the book are given a chance to tell their tale – or the part, at least, that fits into the puzzle of Jean’s life. Most of the voices are distinct, the historical settings sketched in with brief, bold strokes. The book is a crazy-quilt, but like a crazy-quilt it is vibrant and beautiful.
Life for Jean and her family has been vicious and voracious, full of loves both passionate and painful. The book presents love in many forms, in fact – the love between parents and children, between siblings, between lovers, between friends, between neighbors, between a person and their political leaders, and a person and their country. Beyond that, though, it examines the actions or lack of action that various types of love inspire, and how love breaks down, or isn’t always enough to mend or save a broken soul – or a broken country.
Jean is also struggling to work out her place in the history of her family, and her country, and the world at large – and as a child of many cultures, in a country with such a rich and diverse history, this proves to be especially headache-inducing. Finding peace with her identity is part of her journey across Jamaica. The author speaks from her heart in this, having been born on the island to multi-racial parents. (She left when she was 19 to go study English literature at Barnard College and Columbia University and has lived in the US since then.) Cezair-Thompson is intimately familiar with the struggle to find and preserve a sense of identity, and appreciation for the ever active roll history plays in our personal stories.
I read this book for A More Diverse Universe 2014 (#Diversiverse), and for my larger project to diversify my reading (seeking out non-white female authors). It was a wonderful place to start, with it’s wealth of female characters and the way it addressed the concerns about identity that I detailed above. It was also well written and told an interesting story (I especially appreciated the skillfully done dialect – I had heard Jamaican patois being spoken without much comprehension, so it thrilled my linguistic-loving heart to see bits of it written out…!) I recommend the book and will certainly read Cezair-Thompson’s other story, The Pirate’s Daughter, next time I get an urge to visit Jamaica!
Follow the link above to find Aarti’s roundup of book reviews. The event runs from Sept. 14th-27th and over 100 bloggers have signed up! My review will be the 19th posted so far. Check back often for more – this diverse catalog will be an awesome resource by the time we’re done for the year. Three cheers!