Bookshelf (July/August 2018) | Book reviews

This month’s reading picks, with reviews of De Rightest Place; Mouths Don’t Speak; Madwoman; and Ordinary Beast

  • De Rightest Place
  • Mouths Don't Speak
  • Mad Woman
  • Ordinary Beast

De Rightest Place by Barbara Jenkins

Peepal Tree Press, 278 pp, ISBN 9781845234225

In her debut novel, Trinidadian author Barbara Jenkins banishes uptight associations of the rumshop as a creative wasteland. The Belmont bar from which the novel takes its title is the home of jilted yet pluckily resourceful Indira Gabriel, a woman who measures out her resolve in self-help books, her mettle spiced with designer perfumes. Together with stoic, secretive Bostic, they run De Rightest Place from strength to strength, battling romantic contretemps, whistleblowing members of the clergy, greasy-palmed councillors, and entrepreneurial barbecue infringements. If it sounds like a simmering sancoche of a tale, that’s because soup is never far from De Rightest Place: in literal, steaming bowls, and in the figurative melange of picong, pastiche, and political peppering that is confidently stirred in Jenkins’s prose. Indira’s surprising versatility as a narrator drives home this exquisitely orchestrated ode to Belmont.


Mouths Don’t Speak by Katia D. Ulysse

Akashic Books, 224 pp, ISBN 9781617755927

“You’re not Haitian unless your umbilical stamp is buried under a tree in this country — this country. Who knows what you did with my grandchild’s lonbrit?” Annette asks this of her daughter Jacqueline, in Katia D. Ulysse’s Mouths Don’t Speak, a novel that conjures the ever-present dead alongside those who survive in the face of calamities, be they natural disasters or man-made terrors. The devastation of the 2010 Haiti earthquake is its own character in this tightly-plotted story, exacting deaths that extend even beyond the initial toll of a quarter million. Ulysse dedicates herself to mapping these emotional deaths, these sunderings of human spirit from heart, as she peers into the fissuring domestic tableau of a Haitian-American family: Jacqueline, Kevin, and their three-year-old daughter, Amber. The reading isn’t easy, but this tenderly heartbreaking novel resonates.


Madwoman by Shara McCallum

Peepal Tree Press, 72 pp, ISBN 9781845233396

“You think / I’m gristle, begging to be chewed? / No, my love: I’m bone.” The poem “Memory” from Shara McCallum’s powerful fifth collection, Madwoman, is a map for this firebrand-feminist body of work. In verse that layers strident girlhood over transgressive woman’s magic, the poet reveals stations of obsession; bittersweet education in Jamaica’s rich, revelatory setting; calcifying loss mixed with rapturous self-discovery. Of motherhood and mutability do these poems summon their multiple significances: they keep their own counsel, studying the clearly demarcated roles assigned to women, blasting them open to mine richer and stranger meanings. Winner of the 2018 OCM Bocas Prize for Poetry, Madwoman is a reading of womanhood as both mysterious codex and traceable vault: McCallum takes us, with an expeditioner’s bravery, to the origins of things. She shows us that the centre is female.

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Ordinary Beast by Nicole Sealey

Ecco, 80 pp, ISBN 9780062688804

The Virgin Islands-born poet Nicole Sealey stuns, in movements of technical deftness, with her debut full-length collection, Ordinary Beast. Not content to merely master existing forms, Sealey forges her own, as in “candelabra with heads,” a poem of reversals, called an obverse, in which malign dread sidles up to bolstered self-possession. Sealey’s verse chants down the empire of American whiteness, singing revolutionary anti-hymns, survival songs of the black body’s capacity both to regenerate and to reject colonial visitations of pain. Nor is form the sole accomplishment of Ordinary Beast: the multiple registers of these poems simultaneously convince and discomfit, drawing the reader into an uneasy, vagabond trust. See the second poem, “a violence”, for proof: “A body, I’ve read, can sustain / its own sick burning, its own hell, for hours. / It’s the mind. It’s the mind that cannot.”