Caribbean Bookshelf (January/February 2016)

This month’s reading picks

  • The Merchant of Feathers
  • The Lost Child
  • Children of Paradise
  • Uncle Brother
  • The Survival of Indigenous Rights in Guyana

The Merchant of Feathers, by Tanya Shirley (Peepal Tree Press, 64 pp, ISBN 9781845232337)

A merchant of feathers sells soft things in hard times, as we learn in these new poems from Jamaican Tanya Shirley. From one of the poetic voices highlighted by Kei Miller in his far-sighted 2007 New Caribbean Poetry anthology, here is a lyrical communion of delicacy and barbarity that sings a tempestuous song of contemporary Caribbean society. Shirley’s musings are both redemptive and reflective: life is its own long, uneven song, as the messages within her verses proclaim. Her sophomore collection, The Merchant of Feathers sets its wonderings to the major and minor keys of both a ribald and rebellious life, savouring notes of feminist ire that rage against homophobia, child abuse, and the devastated dreams of little girls — in Jamaica and the wide world beyond.

Shirley’s first book, 2009’s She Who Sleeps With Bones, revelled in the declarative weight of confident and unbridled female sensuality. Her new book straddles this confidence, deepening it to examine the fractures, landmines, and personal faults through which women wade, to come to the amplitude of their sensual, emotional selves. The narrator of “Message in a Dream” is told of this transformative power by a soothsayer, who presents the woman’s fierce majesty to her: “Lightning rises out of my palms, hits the water and the waves spit fire. ‘You are too passionate,’ she whispers. ‘You will kill things along the way.’”

So many of these poems are alchemical, addressing Jamaican corruption and misogyny with wit, and a sharpness of tongue that makes slur-touting dancehall deejays cringe. The world as Shirley sees it is layered in complications. Amid these, The Merchant of Feathers strives to limn fissures with sweetness, to caulk apathy with wonder, so you go to your eventual coffin well-lived, well-loved, and perhaps even a little mischievous about the entire circus that brought you there.

Shivanee Ramlochan, Bookshelf editor


The Lost Child, by Caryl Phillips (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 272 pp, ISBN 9780374191375)

Who was Heathcliff, the troubled antihero of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, of whom so many Gothic, aromantic roles in literature and other media have taken their moor-wandering cues? Perhaps an even more important question asked in Kittitian-British novelist Caryl Phillips’s The Lost Child, which splices a Heathcliff origin story into an equally grim contemporary tale of dislocation, is to wonder at the secret lives of all those who form a nomadic part of a lost tribe. Monica Johnson, the modern-day failed scholar whose narrative wends a taut, unsettling line of alienation, loss, and mental ruin through the novel, is as complex in the sum of her parts as Heathcliff himself. Underpinned by tragedies, the small sorrows of children writ large, and many voyages in the dark, Phillips’s newest work is a masterclass in nowhereian spirit and bleakest endurance.



Children of Paradise, by Fred D’Aguiar (Granta, 384 pp, ISBN 9781847088628)

Jonestown: the word carries the weight of blood memory, and in British-Guyanese writer Fred D’Aguiar’s newest novel, he attempts to wrestle that juggernaut massacre of faith and fear onto the page. Jim Jones isn’t called by name in Children of Paradise — instead, he is transposed into the eccentric, cruel personhood of The Preacher, a man who endorses the caning of children, who rules over his congregation with a singular manic fanaticism. Death hangs with gravid anticipation over the structure of this novel, focusing on the lives of the commune’s children. Small joys are savoured all the more strongly, because of the precarious backdrop against which they take place, and in the author’s unflinching portrayal of place lie clues and portents to the most savage parts of our shared human nature. Children of Paradise is an astute, historically rooted reminder of the pitfalls of blind obedience, and the dangers of cult adoration, brought uncomfortably to life under D’Aguiar’s hand.



Uncle Brother, by Barbara Lalla (University of the West Indies Press, 297 pp, ISBN 9789766404604)

The ornate threads of Indo-Trinidadian history are worked with satisfying richness into the plot of Uncle Brother, a linguistically variegated novel from Trinidad-based Jamaican writer Barbara Lalla. Nathan Deoraj, alias Uncle Brother, is the story’s larger-than-life hero, a dauntless provider modelled on familial succour, warmth, and sovereign protection. Lalla’s novel is a cultural passport unto itself, unearthing traditional value systems within the South Asian diasporic community, infusing them with a meticulously formatted rhythm of speech and signification that grounds the novel firmly in the villages of South Trinidad. Handsomely decentralising the narratives of Trinidadian fictive works, Uncle Brother draws on a deep well of heritage. It remarks on possibilities for that heritage’s survival, in a Caribbean where fewer children feel indebted to archive their ancestors’ emotionally replete stories of arrival, labour, and resilience.



The Survival of Indigenous Rights in Guyana, by Arif Bulkan (University of Guyana, 358 pp, ISBN 9789766240370)

There were people in the countries of the Caribbean long before the meddling Columbus found his way into the region in the 1490s. They had their own rules and customs, their own celebrations and rituals. In Guyana, there are still about forty-five thousand indigenous people, in nine separate tribes. How could these indigenous people be “granted” title to land which was already theirs? That is the problem Arif Bulkan explores in his admirable study. What inherent legal rights do indigenous people still have, if any, to their traditional land and resources within the framework of a modern state? With one eye on history and the other on the law, Bulkan navigates clearly and confidently through centuries of legal wrangling. He is thorough, meticulous, and formidably well informed.

Jeremy Taylor

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