Bookshelf (September/October 2019) | Book reviews

This month’s reading picks, with reviews of Unraveling; Now/After; Slave Old Man; Skin Can Hold; and a look at the Hardears series

  • Unraveling
  • Now/After
  • Slave Old Man
  • Skin Can Hold
  • Gardening in Trinidad and Tobago: Our Style
  • Hardears

Unraveling

by Karen Lord (DAW/Penguin Random House, 304 pp, ISBN 9780756415204)

What would you weave if you could walk through the labyrinth of another’s mind? Spiderlike, summoning slippery cunning and an Anansi’s web laced with whodunit flair, Karen Lord maps the world of Unraveling, her newest novel of psychological intrigue and startling suspense. At the centre of this sphere, forensic therapist Dr Miranda Ecouvo is snatched sideways out of her ordered City life to help solve a mystery behind a mystery. Can she work alongside supernatural, demi-human agents to help pin down the menacing figure behind serial killer Walther Grey? Flanked by the not-quite-mortal brothers Chance and the Trickster, Miranda walks cerebral mazes, labyrinths of the lives of others. It’s a shadow-and-ink realm where her metaphysical motions echo with deliberate repercussions in real life, dangerously teeming.

Lord, whose speculative fiction novels Redemption in Indigo, The Best of All Possible Worlds, and The Galaxy Game serve up worlds that feel both fantastical and immediate, is poised at the pinnacle of her mastery in Unraveling. Here is a challenging, thorny narrative that requires attentive reading and rewards careful scrutiny, a reality wherein “humans are not only permitted but encouraged to change destiny.” The deeper Miranda progresses into the labyrinth, flanked by grisly and gruesome remnants of the murders she has probed, the tighter we tug on the storytelling string binding her fate to ours: the more fully, completely we are invited to start walking the rings of our own mazes.

“Humans would look for a pattern in anything — a face in the clouds, a voice in the wind, and a reason in chaos,” muses Miranda’s right hand sojourner, Chance. What a densely alive cipher of a novel Lord has bestowed on us: our own diligent fascination is the key to unlocking it.

Now/After

by Anton Nimblett (Peepal Tree Press, 142 pp, ISBN 9781845234423)

In his second short story collection (following 2009’s Sections of an Orange), Trinidad-born Anton Nimblett takes us into the private reading rooms of bibliophilic desires. Not content with the casting of supposedly well-known characters from Lamming and Melville? You can find their stories upended in Now/After, in moving, often tender acts of reclamation. Here, the origin story of Moby Dick’s Queequeg is a decidedly different tale, one that renders the South Pacific Islander animist as far more than a “sober cannibal” in the eyes of Ishmael. A studied, deliberate re-archiving of the canon is afoot: hear the Mighty Shadow’s Bassman speak in “Farrell”, declaring “I mean all of we connected to the bass, connected like a pulse linking mother and child, continent and island.” Each story in Now/After is an object lesson in listening to secret rhythms.

Slave Old Man

by Patrick Chamoiseau, translated by Linda Coverdale (The New Press, 176 pp, ISBN 9781620975886)

A runaway slave flees into a densely thicketed wilderness, with his plantation master’s feral hellhound hot on his heels. This is the plot of Martinican Patrick Chamoiseau’s Slave Old Man, translated from French and Creole by Linda Coverdale (for which the book received a 2019 French-American Foundation Translation Prize). In the ancient woodlands that cradle the terrified, elderly slave, “everything shivered shapeless, vulva dark, carnal opacity, odours of weary eternity and famished life. The forest interior was still in the grip of a millenary night.” Into this world of densely compacted imageries Chamoiseau steals us, guaranteeing that we are changed — our awareness amplified — when we emerge on the other side of such alchemical prose.

Skin Can Hold

by Vahni Capildeo (Carcanet Press, 128 pp, ISBN 9781784107314)

Vahni Capildeo’s pen does more than take no prisoners: it implicates the reader with an intelligence so searing you could fry fish on its patina. Consider the disgusted beautician in “Shame”, who handles brown skin during a waxing appointment with a torturer’s cruelty: “The skin was stripped and festered and / purpled and scarred. The ancient and worshipful triangle of mystery / became the record of an intimate war.” Alongside this purposeful rage — never reactionary, always a feat of polyglottal blistering — lies true, invitational playfulness. Harnessing the invocations of late Guyanese poet Martin Carter’s “I Am No Soldier”, Capildeo presents “syntax poems” in response, described as “rearrangeable elements for future experiments,” best activated by bodies in motion. On your feet, then, the syntax poems sing, dismantling the traditional audience-speaker receivership of performed, and read, poetry. There are revolutions to dingolay.

Gardening in Trinidad and Tobago: Our Style

by Chancy Bachan-Moll (The Garden Club of Trinidad, 170 pp, ISBN 9789768255822)

Whether your thumb is green, or you can’t cultivate a cactus, there’s no denying that a verdant world blooms between the pages of this more-than-a-coffee-table-book. Founded in 1993, the Garden Club of Trinidad has spread its modest tendrils, from an intimate gathering of friends growing greenery, to a bountiful organisation committed to holistic preservation of T&T’s natural landscapes. Even if the science of bromeliads and other plant families eludes you, an evening of reflective contemplation spent with Gardening in Trinidad and Tobago: Our Style has the power to enliven, educate, and inspire. Every curated garden photographed herein, be it modest or expansive, is stunningly presented, with love glistening from each leaf.


Enter the World of Hardears

Jouvert Island. Home to flying buses piloted by giant fish, defended by landships — vessels built of ancestral memory: here’s a realm where everything depends on the essential life force called “vibez.” It’s a world informed, and inhabited, by the indisputably Caribbean. Here shines a contemporary graphic novel series as ambitious and fully realised as anything emerging from larger metropolitan studios.

The world of Hardears is masterminded by Barbados-based Beyond Publishing, helmed by Matthew Clarke (creator/story/art) and Nigel Lynch (story/script). Alongside fellow creators Aguinaldo Belgrave and Tristan Roach, who oversee other projects, Beyond Publishing is on the frontlines of what’s achievable in comic books of the current era: these titles are as politically charged as they are packed with feats of super heroism and special effects.

In Hardears Volumes 1 through 4, Jouvert Island braces against a baleful anthropomorphised super storm, confronts the corporate face of hyper-mechanised industrialisation, and takes us into the clouds on the soaring wings of a landship, piloted to the tattoo of tuk band music. Our principal hero, Bolo, King of the Crop, Champion of the Agri Guild, works stubbornly to thwart the postcolonial power of Mr Hardin, alongside resolute heroine Zahra. There’s even a diminutive, tangerine-hued animal sidekick, Duppy, last of the Barbados Raccoons, who supplies picong and pithy observances. From moko jumbies to stern nautical empresses, Clarke and Lynch have poured rapt, fascinated attention into the Hardears world: a tradesman, speaking no lines but magnificently bedizened, is given perfectly calibrated room to cavort on the page alongside a crafty, faceless villain.

These are islands made for multiple memorable returns: it’s impossible not to be compelled by this impeccably imagined romp of a graphic novel. You’ll find that steeping yourself in its pages produces ample vibez.

To order the Hardears series, visit www.beyondpublishingcaribbean.com