Bookshelf (November/December 2017) | Book Reviews

This month’s reading picks in our books column

The Marvellous Equations of the DreadDreams Beyond the ShoreGirlcottHouse of Lords and CommonsThe Shaping of a Culture

The Marvellous Equations of the Dread: a novel in bass riddim, by Marcia Douglas

Peepal Tree Press, 285 pp, ISBN 9781845233327

A world in which Bob Marley walks among us again, twisting his Lion of Judah ring, in which fallen angels soar into open bedroom windows to beget powerful Rasta daughters: these are but two of the gravid, percussive possibilities given to us in The Marvellous Equations of the Dread. Why percussive? It is because the entire novel syncopates on timelines of converging histories, conspiracies, and family faultlines — everything has an echo; every happening has a sound beneath the seemingly simple sound. Jamaican Marcia Douglas does the work of both a diviner and a good deejay: she lets the sounds fall from on high, in prose that chants down Babylon and confirms the coming, sweeter than can be reckoned, of Zion.

The narrators of Douglas’s novel are deaf Leenah, orphaned Delroy, Marley himself: together, they speak of their own stories, and of their antecedents’. Together, they shape a Jamaica that is entwined in the delicate, deft process of trying to understand its own musical history, its own history in violence and rapture, conjoined. Hearkening to the heraldic words and visitations of Marcus Garvey and Emperor Haile Selassie, in slipstreams of storytelling consciousness, here is prose steeped deep in portents, parables, and a profusion of signs.

A lyrical convocation of reggae, roots healing, the history of Half Way Tree, of duppies and fearsome body-swapping, of dangerous youthmen and deliberate revolution, The Marvellous Equations of the Dread samples archives, remixes gold standard tracks you’ve heard sung before, and offers up something enviable: a new way to say Jamaica. It is a novel that roars, much like one of the ancestresses in its pages, who proclaims “Rastawoman! I dwell betwixt and between and no evil shall overcome she-lion; yu see me? I hold my neck proud and balance Jah-Jah ark on top I&I head.”

 

Dreams Beyond the Shore, by Tamika Gibson

Blouse & Skirt Books, 190 pp, ISBN 9789768267061

Politics and passion don’t always make for the best bedfellows: the young would-be couple of Dreams Beyond the Shore learn this the rough way, in a story so clever and charming it snagged the first place 2016 CODE Burt Award for Caribbean Literature. Here’s a story for young adults that credibly captures life in present-day Trinidad: tempestuous, tricky to navigate, but not without sweet success for teen scholars and football stars alike. In Chelsea Marchand and Kyron Grant, debut author Tamika Gibson has given her readers protagonists who are irrepressibly funny and winningly relatable, fashioned from equal parts fearlessness, loyalty, and juvenile frustration. Chelsea’s father, a prime ministerial candidate, is a particularly well-drawn character: a cautionary tale that the sins of the parent often fall too close to the aspirations of the child.

 

Girlcott, by Florenz Webbe Maxwell

Blouse & Skirt Books, 180 pp, ISBN 9789768267085

Second place winner of the 2016 CODE Burt Award for Caribbean Literature, Girlcott situates the desires of a precocious, gifted teen against the wider backdrop of 1950s Bermudian history. On the cusp of her sixteenth birthday, Desma Johnson is poised to snatch up a prestigious Empire scholarship. Her father’s arranged a birthday trip to the cinema, and invited all Desma’s friends: but there’s the matter of the nationwide cinema boycott, engineered by the anonymous Progressive League to protest racial segregation. Maxwell, a retired Bermudian librarian, storyteller, and member of the selfsame Progressive Group that agitated against state-sanctioned segregation, is a vital part of her island’s journey to unfettered self-determination. In Girlcott, she brings purposeful political activism front and centre, marrying it to a young black woman’s personal growth. The novel is proof that the personal is political, and that dreamers come in all shapes, sizes, and colours.

 

House of Lords and Commons, by Ishion Hutchinson

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 81 pp, ISBN 9780374173029

A leviathan power stirs in Ishion Hutchinson’s second collection of poems. Winner of the 2016 National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry, House of Lords and Commons constructs narrative wonderments, whether the speakers reminisce about Jamaican childhoods or regard the sea. It is a homestead in verse informed by the presence of Derek Walcott, but not constrained by it. Through experience, a diligent regard for the rhythms of spoken and written forms, a fidelity to the musical canter of memory, Hutchinson works on the reader’s twinned senses of loss and livity. Spectral jubilation and dread are at play in poems like “The Garden”, wherein “the Minister of All could not sleep,” where “the dead / flew in a silver stream that night, their silk / hair thundered and their heels crushed / the bissy nuts and ceramic roofs.” This is how the poet draws us into his ancient, and contemporary, worlds: leading us with attentive elegance, formal restraint, and all the power of a quiet, watchful beast.

 

The Shaping of a Culture: Rituals and Festivals in Trinidad Compared with Selected Counterparts in India, 1990–2014, by Satnarine Balkaransingh

Hansib Publications, 404 pp, ISBN 9781910553589

Epic in scope and formidable in research, The Shaping of a Culture takes a cross-sectional approach to documenting festival life: it examines how cultural mainstays like Carnival, Christmas, Phagwah, and Divali are celebrated in Trinidad, then spins the globe to see how these events unfold in India. From Chaguanas to Ayodhya, Felicity to Goa, Port of Spain to Chennai, we’re given meticulous accounts of how Indian and Indo-Trinidadian revellers worship, fete, and observe both gods and good times. It’s unusual to find nonfiction with a truly singular scope, but Balkaransingh’s book might be the most unique perspective on syncretic cultural forms we’ve recently seen on our regional shelves. Hindu devotees and cultural scholars are equally likely to praise the focus, lucidity, and artistic immersion with which this tome has been composed.