Bookshelf (July/August 2017) | Book Reviews

This month’s reading picks in our books column

  • River Dancer
  • Cannibal
  • Curfew Chronicles
  • Side by Side We Stand
  • Indo-Caribbean Feminist Thought

River Dancer, by Ian McDonald

Hansib Publications, 112 pp, ISBN 9781910553268

“I have the feeling jaguars are nearby,” declares one of the poems in River Dancer. The line is powerful not because it is delivered on the edge of a narrative cutlass, but with the watchful quiet of decades of observing life move, both slow and teeming. Claiming Antigua, Trinidad, and Guyana in his Caribbean passport, Ian McDonald’s poems show the long span of a life braided into others — a beloved, beautiful wife steadfast in her attentions; a host of fast friends, now either deceased or demented; “boys in a football game / boisterous and golden in the setting sun.”

Expect no abstruse flourishes in the verse, no ornate literary calisthenics to showcase proof of talent. The work proves itself, steadily and with careful, clean-polished imageries held up to reflect the self-lit brightness of thousands of night orchids at the edge of the Essequibo. In every visual dispatch, McDonald takes the reader by the hand, firm but gentle, and leads her through eighty years of journeys: some indistinct, yellowing with the sweet efflorescence of age, some as vivid as if the poet’s youth were still firmly clutched in his grasp.

It is the lodestone of gratitude that eases these poems into the minds of those who read them. In this way, the poems become as friends, neither dead nor demented: alive and present, listening to the heartbeats of hummingbirds; awaiting a new book of Walcott’s in the post; ascending El Tucuche amid “huge crapauds hopping in the muddy pools / wild orchids leaping in the branches / a rotten stump of tree pouring out / red bajack ants in angry hunting streams / everything seemed good and memorable.”

The goodness of that memory is the inner illumination of River Dancer, a book deeply concerned with what lies beyond the next turn in the oxbow lake.


Cannibal, by Safiya Sinclair

University of Nebraska Press, 126 pp, ISBN 9780803290631

These poems announce themselves in cauldrons, coastlines, and calamities. Winner of the 2017 OCM Bocas Poetry Prize and the 2017 Addison Metcalf Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Cannibal comes not with faint praise, but on rapturous report — and with galvanising reason. Taking the maligned colonial subject of Caliban, Sinclair pirouettes his possibilities in our literary vaults, affording him his own language, and the power to curse, cavort, and carry on in it. The narrator of “Home” reflects the restless certainty of voyage contained at the core of Cannibal: “I’d open my ear for sugar cane / and long stalks of gungo peas / to climb in. I’d swim the sea / still lapsing in a soldered frame, / the sea that again and again / calls out my name.” When these poems arrive on your doorstep, be unsurprised if they claim the blood of a glorious and certain homecoming.


Curfew Chronicles, by Jennifer Rahim

Peepal Tree Press, 208 pp, ISBN 9781845233624

In an ideal world, a state of emergency might bring the armistice it intends. In Trinidad and Tobago in 2011, the official state of emergency that lasted four months uncovered more crises than comforts. Jennifer Rahim’s Curfew Chronicles draws together politicians in low places with streetwise scholars, bringing accounts of the extraordinary and the everyday together in prose that presents us to ourselves: as incandescent, dramatic residents of the 868. This novel in episodic chapters reveals that the nation’s metaphoric state of emergency didn’t begin in 2011; its roots remain sunk in something far more insidious: “The real disease, brother, is when a people lose sight of who they are. They think is a race, a faith, a flag, a surname, a title, a bank account, a law, even a hurt that make them who they are. A person, even a people, could fall into that trap.”


Side by Side We Stand, by Nathalie Taghaboni

Commess University, 384 pp, ISBN 9780692694015

In novels that trace their percussion lines to the riffs of steelpan, and soak themselves deep in local-distillery rum, Nathalie Taghaboni makes Caribbean romance writing come alive. Side by Side We Stand is the Trinidad-born author’s third and final installment in The Savanoy Series, which chronicles the grand stage revels of a T&T Carnival masmaking family. Banishing the supposition that romances cannot deal in piercing loss, Taghaboni visits immeasurable grief on her characters, prompting deeper catharses through the healing of a full-body immersion in the mas. We are not here only to dance, this novel and its predecessors Across From Lapeyrouse and Santimanitay say: but while we are here, love, levity, and the las’ lap of every Carnival Tuesday will sustain us.


Indo-Caribbean Feminist Thought: Genealogies, Theories, Enactments, edited by Gabrielle Jamela Hosein and Lisa Outar

Palgrave Macmillan, 349 pp, ISBN 9781137570796

What have the lives of Indian women in the Caribbean brought forth, and what transformative seeds do they continue to sow? To answer this question among several, editors Gabrielle Hosein and Lisa Outar train their attentions not only on curating the canon of scholarship on Indo-Caribbean feminisms, but on throwing the gates — real or imagined — wide open. This anthology meanders wilfully away from insularity: some of its most promising engagements tackle the shapeshifting power of Nicki Minaj, the erotic and emotional lives of same-sex-loving Indo-Trinidadian women, the direct devastations of indentureship. With an entire section of this academic text devoted to the experiences of dougla women — those of mixed African and Indian ancestry — the editors of Indo-Caribbean Feminist Thought have pointed their rudders forwards: away from the affirmations of the subcontinent, and deeper into the Caribbean’s own expressive, tenacious heart.

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