Bookshelf (Mar/Apr 2021) | Book reviews

This month’s reading picks from the Caribbean, with reviews of Inheritance: The Story of a West Indian Family by Ian McDonald; of colour by Katherine Agyemaa Agard; My Mother’s House by Francesca Momplaisir; and The Wondrous and Tragic Life of Ivan and Ivana by Maryse Condé

  • Inheritance: The Story of a West Indian Family
  • of colour
  • My Mother’s House
  • The Wondrous and Tragic Life of Ivan and Ivana

Inheritance: The Story of a West Indian Family

by Ian McDonald (Paria Publishing, 88 pp, ISBN 9789768244437)

Prolific poet, essayist, and fiction writer Ian McDonald turns his attentions to chronicling his redoubtable family tree. What might we expect from a veteran Caribbean writer who describes himself as “Antiguan by ancestry,
Trinidadian by birth, Guyanese by adoption, West Indian by conviction”? In Inheritance, the worlds of McDonald’s foremothers and -fathers are peppered with exploits, tales of warfare and conquest, entrepreneurship and landed interests. A gold-hued plane propeller hangs in pride of place in St George’s Cathedral, Antigua, a tribute to the Royal Air Force hero after whom the author is named. Yet for every larger-than-life predecessor, this slim volume heralds quieter matriarchal lives, the vital industry of women, and the voices of those whose records could not be pristinely documented.

of colour

by Katherine Agyemaa Agard (Essay Press, 180 pp, ISBN 9781734498417)

“It is possible to spend your entire life searching for something that you miss. / That thing can be a colour.” To approach of colour with a linear, prescriptive architecture of understanding is to be dismayed. What Agard, who has dual Ghanaian-T&T citizenship, instead presents is labyrinthine, genre-combative meditations on unbelonging, the configurations of racial identity both in and away from “home,” and how the self behaves when it is seeking itself in art, politics, and education. Drawing richly on her family’s histories, Agard summons visual archives, chat exchanges, historical documents, Peter Doig’s Lapeyrouse Cemetery paintings, and postage stamps: all in service of a visionary ethnography. Braiding these cues, signifiers, and markers is the author’s disruptive, poetic text, as confessional as it is curious, as it is remarkably urgent.

My Mother’s House

by Francesca Momplaisir (Alfred A. Knopf, 304 pp, ISBN 9780525657156)

In Haiti-born, US-based Francesca Momplaisir’s dark debut, the walls themselves are scorched with terrors. Wielding psychological horror like a truncheon, this tale of an immigrant family’s settlement in New York City twists conceptions of expected diasporan narratives, asking hard and profound questions about what it means to belong, and to where. Pushing anthropomorphic tropes to grizzly limits, Momplaisir rattles the rafters of domestic safety, casting the wildly unlikely protagonist Lucien, whose ambitions morph into his own grotesque undoing in the alleged land of milk and honey. The house, La Kay, is as important as the family she holds within her walls. Momplaisir casts her scrutiny beyond her inhabitants, creating room in her dimensions for wrenching reflections on Amadou Diallo and Abner Louima: both subjects of a brutal America. 

The Wondrous and Tragic Life of Ivan and Ivana

by Maryse Condé (World Editions, 368 pp, ISBN 9781642860696)

Guadeloupean Maryse Condé, who won the famed 2018 “alternative” Nobel Prize (the New Academy Prize in Literature), has remarked that the win placed Guadeloupe more solidly on the global cultural and literary map. The Wondrous and Tragic Life of Ivan and Ivana, translated from the French by Richard Philcox, plants stakes in that specific firmament of world literature, in both satiric and subversive flourishes. In Condé’s visioning of the lives of fraternal twins Ivan and Ivana lies an energetic, compulsive exploration of sibling interdependence and aggressive radicalisation, situated at the divergent triple-pronged crossroads of faith, mania, and superstition. Guadeloupe and Mali are front and centre, a canny retooling of the canon to signify the importance of worlds outside the
Anglophone metropole. 

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