Thursday, 20 August 2020

Four Novels of Summer - Jamaica

The themes of my four novels of Summer 2020 were again YA and adult novels by Caribbean authors that are set in the Caribbean. The selections were through the Jamaica Library Service and I enjoyed them all in different ways. My secret to enjoying a book is to read with perception so that you can be more aware of the writer's style of storytelling, and the core reason for telling the story at all.

If I were to recommend any or all of these books, it is that they tell stories of good over evil, self forgiveness and the huge potential of the human spirit to guide lives in big and small ways. 

This cluster were all authored by women: three Jamaicans and one writer from Antigua and Barbuda. All settings are, I believe, between the 1990s to the present and the books were published between 2013 and 2019, making them very recent publications. All four books are set in the major urban centres: Jamaica's capital Kingston, Jamaica's major tourism city Montego Bay and the capital of Antigua and Barbuda, St John.

These are the books:

 Musical Youth (2013) by Joanne Hillhouse 

A shy, insecure, young teen develops her confidence and builds true friendships through a youth musical programme with youngsters her age. Through preparations for the final production, she unearths her own family story and has to confront all that it presents. The story integrates the music of the islands and also global pop music in the world of the young people.  

Lest We Find Gold (2019) by Melanie Schwapp  

A woman suffers disappointment in her marriage, but this is directly related to what she learned about man and woman affairs as a child.

I have placed this on my domestic violence and Jamaican mothers shelves because of the ongoing themes that are presented in the books that I read.

This book is firmly set in Jacks Hill and Mona, St Andrew Jamaica, with nostalgic touches on deep rural Jamaica, it also has delicious episodes of food preparation with local ingredients.

Based on the forward and afterward notes, this book connected very closely to the personal life of the author.

Inner City Girl: Other Rivers To Cross (2018) by Colleen Smith Dennis

This is the ongoing story of a young woman who has now completed secondary school and has ambitions to start university. Despite having overcome disadvantages of being born and raised in a deep urban area to a struggling single mother. Through fickle fate, she has tumbled back down the social ladder from where she escaped.

The author plunges the story back in a rough environment of poverty and shows us the pitfalls and the meagre opportunities that must be seized upon as any hope to advance in life.\

The bonds of fast friends, both old and new, and flimsy family more interested in maintaining social standing than family love and care.

The role of the older woman and the reformed man are carefully explored and Kingston city from the waterfront to the hills is the stage.

Tangled Chords (2014) by Brenda Barrett

An energetic episode in the lives of two young people from Montego Bay whose lives have been intertwined since childhood friendship and now, they realise that it has matured to adult love.

The complex nature of power dynamics within families, which extends to domestic employees and also wealthy cliques are explored.

Barrett pays homage to the music of Bob Marley in the hero's band and his mental resilience.

Over time, I have found themes that are very popular to Jamaican, and perhaps Caribbean writers, and these books fit into what I have come to expect and easily find in the set-up of the novel.

The primary theme, by my reading, is the role of the mother. In three of these books, the books start with the mothers having already died, and we are told their flaws as humans and in the role of mother, especially in the area of setting a good example for their daughters. Yes, the protagonists are all young women.

The books use the independent sexual choices of the mothers - not as victims of sexual crimes - as a launch to demonstrate the negative impact of these decisions on the women and their families. So who picks up the slack left by these mothers? Of those three books, it is rural family members or the family domestic staff. 

In the one book where there is a good mother, she is hands-off in child rearing, being more excited and focused on her professional achievements and ensuring that she has a good relationship with her husband and a marriage based on mutual respect and love.

Turning to the father figures: in three of these books, the fathers were prevented by the mothers from being a part of their children's early lives, which definitely had a negative effect on the entire home. 

The Bad Mother is now a common trope for Jamaican literature, which makes me wonder what it says about the society talking to itself through writers. I do wonder how the subject matter in novels is very different from the popular music that we hear, but I have rationalised this down to the gatekeeping. Many of these novelists are self published and self promoted, while the music is produced through a commercial process which is predefined by attributes, the popular ones being: Songs to the long suffering mother, songs for sexy women, songs for gyallis, songs for gangsters, love songs for Jamaica, and songs of divine adoration.  The stories being told by our writers are somewhat different.

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