Reading is, of course, a way to travel, so here are our picks for memorable journeys even as the Covid-19 pandemic keeps most of us physically at home.
SAILING FROM STRIFE
The Belle Créole contains all the literary ingredients for which Maryse Condé is acclaimed: a gripping narrative, troubled characters, lavish descriptions, and a slow, simmering political backstory, set in the Caribbean.
The Guadeloupean author, who won the New Academy Prize (or alternative Nobel) in Literature in 2018, delivers a tale marked by tumult, love and desperation, skilfully translated from the French and Creole by Nicole Simek. The work, Condé’s 12th of 16 novels, starts with the “spectacular” acquittal of 22-year-old Dieudonné Sabrina, a gardener who is accused of murdering his employer - and lover - Loraine, a wealthy white woman descended from plantation owners, a “békée”.
Readers gain insight into Dieudonné’s past through a series of flashbacks from different points of view; through these we see the accused wandering through the city of Port-Mahault and finding sanctuary in a decrepit sailboat, La Belle Créole, while his homeland experiences strikes, violence and social disintegration. Condé paints a picture of the “suffocating” heat of the city, an “inferno” that portends “further abominations”, such as “furious rains” and hurricanes. In contrast, there's the compelling beauty of the sea, although it too can be treacherous, as we see when Dieudonné sails away.
Apart from the main character and his “crime, the story is a portrait of an island struggling with the legacies of colonization and inequality, while facing a future where the only certainty might be climate change. Nothing is clear-cut – not relationships, motivations, politics, or personalities. As Dawn Fulton writes in the afterword, the figures that Condé creates in her novels are “famously not heroic, yet they unfailingly speak to us, draw us in, incite our compassion, frustration, fear, and empathy.” This book will leave some dissatisfied because of the characters’ “contradictions and incongruities”, but in the end, it’s well worth the read. (University of Virginia Press)
THE CONFOUNDING ISLAND
“There are few places more puzzling than Jamaica” states the jacket flap of Orlando Patterson’s The Confounding Island: Jamaica and the Postcolonialist Predicament.
Over the next 346 pages, the Harvard University sociologist attempts to explain the puzzle: why an island with more churches per square mile than any other country can also have one of the highest homicide rates in the world; how a place that produces numerous stars in the arts and sports spheres still struggles with an “anaemic” economy and fragile infrastructures. And so on.
What, then, are the answers to this long-lasting enigma? Patterson investigates the history and culture of his homeland and offers pertinent explanations for what drives Jamaica and its people. In doing so, he reveals that the island is not so mystifying after all.
Many former British colonies are grappling with similar issues of colonial heritage, inequity, and globalization; but Jamaica’s “hypervisibility” (a word everyone likes to throw around at the moment) makes for a special case, and the island’s history naturally explains its present. From Spain’s’ “genocidal destruction of the once-abundant indigenous Taino population” to the brutality of British plantation slavery, Jamaica has a past that is “drenched in blood, like no other place on earth”, Patterson writes.
Some people will disagree with his assessment, and the book may not be everyone’s idea of “summer reading”, but it is written in an accessible, engaging style, with flashes of Patterson’s acerbic wit. Each chapter (except for the final one) poses a question. Why Do Policies to Help the Poor So Often Fail? Why Does Globalization Not Produce Cultural Homogenization? And so on. The responses are based on extensive research and also on the writer’s personal policy experiences. This is a must-read for anyone interested in postcolonial history… and in why poor children can run, sing or write their way to international renown. (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press)
HAIR BRINGS YOU THERE
That Hair, by Djaimilia Pereira de Almeida, takes readers to different continents - travelling by hair. Okay, enough with the puns.
Described by its publisher as an “autobiographically inspired tragicomedy”, the book is a coming-of-age story seen from the perspective of Mila, a biracial character growing up in Lisbon, the daughter of a black Angolan mother and white Portuguese father.
The exploration of her “curly hair” is a quest for identity that “intersects with the story of at least two countries and, by extension, the indirect story of the relations among several continents: a geopolitics”, as Mila herself puts it.
The main themes relate to belonging, colonialism, migration, feminism, and the issues that arise from eternally being considered an outsider – even in one’s own land. Translated by Eric M. B. Becker, the writing is rich and evocative of place, past and present, and the book is a worthy addition to our reading list, no matter the season. (Tin House)
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