rushthatspeaks: (sparklepony only wants to read)
Via [personal profile] coffeeandink. *looks at shelves* I seem to have a pile of Things Mely Recommended In 2008. Okay then.

This is a brilliant novel and I don't know how to talk about it. I am sorry if I get it wrong.

It's set in Jamaica, and it ranges over about thirty years (it came out in 1987) and swirls around one family and the things that happen to its far-flung members, and this is not helping, this is not giving you any bloody idea at all.

When I went to St. Thomas a few years ago the guide we had there said to the group of tourists ""St. Thomas, of course, has no natural water, and no industries. Remember that without the generosity of tourists this entire island is dead in the water." She said that as we walked by her on our way back to our boat. It was the last thing she said to us. In the entry in which I wrote about that I totally failed to express everything important about the way she said it, the reason I remember it perfectly now: the delicate and unashamed scorn too disinterested to be real contempt, too self-concealing to be rage, laughing at herself for having to ask for tips this way, laughing at herself for condescending to try to keep her dignity by not outright asking, laughing at us for everything that was right there in her voice, bitter laughter, and I could see everyone else there failing to hear her, just hand her a twenty and move on back to the cruise ship after all it's raining again, and then the choking rage I couldn't figure out what to do with because what the hell is there to do right there right then but hand her a twenty and my rage wasn't going to do any damn good to anybody and hers would cost her her job and both this beautiful intelligent woman and I stood there for about five seconds (as I gave her the money) united in this extremely futile and completely justified literally unspeakable hatred of everything I could not help but represent.

When I hear the word colonialism now I think of that. And I got to go home again and have a life where I don't have to think about it all the time. That's what happens when you represent the privileged. When you have privilege. Hell, I have the privilege now of being openly angry.

The protagonist of this novel (though she doesn't appear for the first third of it), Jamaican-born but raised in New York, educated in Britain, accepted as white wherever she goes that isn't Jamaica until she opens her mouth and has an accent, is trying to make the journey away from colonialism, from that repeated moment where the way things are dehumanizes you whichever side of it you're standing on (and she's standing on both, and one side, of course, is far, far more painful than the other). The history of her family stretches across the whole of the island's class system; the book begins with the bloody murder of a family of her cousins by their (of course darker) yardboy, a kind of unconscious class warfare. By the end for her terrorism is an emotionally comprehensible decision, one she's made because if she has to be one thing or the other of the several things she is she knows which way she must commit herself to be able to sleep at night. Violence seems the most sane resolution of her life of contradictions, as long as it's aimed in the proper direction.

The book's prose is also a glorious set of apparent-but-not-actual contradictions, sweeps through different countries, different classes, different kinds of slang, Oxfordian academic-speak, hillcountry patois. The delight of the language carries the book, along with the magnificently swirling structure, which initially seems aimless but closes in and in and inward. Cliff has a gift for turning from horror to beauty on a dime and back again: a lovely lyrical description turns out to be a portrait of small boys diving into the harbor after coins thrown from the tourist boats. "Some of them didn't come up again," she says, after showing you exactly how the light spangles on the shillings, "but no one was keeping track."

Jamaica here is dystopia, utopia, and an ordinary country people have to live in; longed-for home and place to escape as fast as possible; the center of the universe and a backwater subject to the whim of greater powers. Things seem to spiral apart and apart, social order disintegrating as the book gets tighter and tighter. The novel this reminds me of most is J.G. Ballard's Empire of the Sun, and Jamaica, technically, isn't even a war zone, though Cliff makes that debatable.

As she says, there is no telephone to heaven. This is not a comfortable book. Merely a magnificent and necessary one.


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