Bahamas: disputed territory

The Bahamas were looking difficult. As recommendations poured in for many other Anglophone countries, the list entry for this small but wealthy collection of more than 3,000 islands and islets remained blank.

Even when I started making inquiries, Bahamian books proved difficult to unearth. In fact, the first title recommended to me by one cultural organisation was a guidebook to the country. Close, but no cigar (although I was very tempted to take the hint and get on a plane…).

Then I stumbled across a blog post by Valentine Logar. A longstanding fan of all things Bahamian, she was on one of her regular family holidays in the country and wrote enthusiastically about the climate, culture, food and fun she was having there. I thought I could do worse than ask for her advice, so I left a comment and was delighted when she came back with several recommendations. Garth Buckner’s Thine is the Kingdom, published by small indie house Ravenna Press, was one of them.

Contrary to what the title might lead you to expect, this novel has nothing to do with religion. Rather, it chronicles the attempts of white Bahamian Gavin Blake to carve out a life for himself in the country of his birth after years of travelling round the world. Hampered by a legal technicality which dictates that Bahamian-born children take their fathers’ nationalities, penniless Blake, whose father was American, goes to work for rich yacht-owner Thesinger while he tries to apply for citizenship. But as he witnesses the rise of violent crime and social unrest on the island firsthand, he comes to realise that he is not the only one struggling to hold on to his stake in this millionaire’s playground.

Buckner writes passionately about the desire to belong and the things that put people in or out of the gang. Exploring class markers, educational background, race and linguistic habits, he reveals Gavin’s frustration and wistfulness as he tries to find acceptance from both the wealthy landowners and the feisty street traders in the country he calls home:

‘I was delivered right here in Nassau and this is the only home I knew as a boy coming up. My umbilical cord is buried in this sand. There should be something inalienable in that. But they never call me Bahamian and mean it; the word is always couched in inverted commas.’

Buckner sets this yearning against the rich backdrop of the island life he is so adept at evoking. In tough, muscular language, which breaks at times to admit moments of beauty, he conjures tropical harbour life and the perpetual influence of the weather and tides on those who live surrounded by the ocean.

The writer couples this with a talent for getting inside the minds of his characters and revealing the gusts of emotion that blow them off the course of logic into troubled waters. Whether it’s Blake’s insecurity as he struggles to remember how to clean an engine filter under the gaze of his boss’s wealthy friends or Thesinger’s anger at failing to catch any crayfish on his much-vaunted fishing trip, he excels at showing the limitations that force people to do unwise and dangerous things rather than own up to their own weaknesses.

His skill for scene-painting and empathy mean that Buckner is able to evoke a huge amount of menace as Blake struggles to defend Thesinger’s property from the tide of hostility swelling outside his gates. The scenes with various intruders and the stand-offs with the sinister Caleb and his cronies at the illegal fish market are gripping and thrilling.

If Buckner labours his message about double standards and the wealthy landowners being every bit as corrupt as the criminals they confront towards the end of the book, it feels like a small price to pay for this compelling insight into a privileged and turbulent corner of the world. I was hooked. Thanks for the tip, Valentine.

Thine is the Kingdom by Garth Buckner (Ravenna Press 2008)

United States: supersize gods

When you’re trying to get through 196 books in a year, size matters. If a book’s more than 300 pages, it’s a challenge. If it’s more than 400, it’s pushing it. And anything over 500 pages is just having a laugh.

Weighing in at 672 pages, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods nearly disqualified itself on girth alone — particularly when I discovered that the 10th anniversary edition featured an extra 12,000 words not published before. To my page-swamped mind, this was bordering on rude.

There was another objection too: despite having lived in the United States for 20 years, having children there and being married to an American, British-born Gaiman is not a US citizen and has said that he has no intention of taking citizenship. Would this book by a perpetual outsider really count as US literature?

But Carol, who recommended the novel, was very insistent and so, kissing my weekend goodbye —  and dodging the glares from Roth, Steinbeck, Oates, Hemingway, Chabon and the host of other American greats up on my bookshelf —  I holed myself up and began to read.

Bold, baggy and mind-boggling, the novel traces the fate of the gods brought to the land of the free by immigrants, right from the arrival of the earliest prehistoric visitors to the refugees and fortune-hunters of the present day. The story is told through the eyes of Shadow, who gets out of prison to find that his wife and employer have been killed in a car crash, taking with them his hopes of a normal life. With nothing to lose except his new-found freedom, Shadow goes to work for the mysterious Mr Wednesday, who seems to know an uncanny amount about his life.

Wednesday’s omniscience is no accident. As head of the collective of traditional gods who are finding themselves sidelined for the ‘gods of credit card and freeway, of internet and telephone’, he is rallying his troops for a battle between deities old and new. But as the storm approaches and breaks, it seems that the gods themselves may be labouring under false beliefs.

Gaiman’s writing is refreshingly approachable. At times echoing the stripped-back voices of Hemingway and Steinbeck, the narrative manages to carry humour and philosophical reflections equally lightly, blending fantasy, mythology and a quirky, humane perspective that is all Gaiman’s own. This is helped by some surprising imagery — the description of driving into Chicago, for example, so that the city ‘happened slowly like a migraine’, and the presentation of the hinterworld ‘behind the scenes’ are particularly memorable.

Gaiman also has the knack of making us care quickly. The narrative veers off repeatedly into stories of some of the many travellers who came to America to make a life and, for the most part, these are compelling in their own rights, as well as giving the philosophical and mythological arguments in the book a human face.

This gives rise to some great reflections on what it means to be a nation of immigrants. ‘Nobody’s American. Not originally. That’s my point,’ says Wednesday at one stage, articulating sentiments that resonated particularly strongly for me as a Londoner proud of having grown up in a city that is home to people from nearly every nation of the world. Given the definition of US nationhood Gaiman posits in his novel, he, as an ex-pat Brit, fits right in.

By rights, I should be angry with this book. It kept me up at night, it made me late for trains and towards the end it made my eyes go a bit fuzzy. If this book were someone I knew, I’d definitely be thinking about unfriending it on Facebook. But as a book, it’s an impressive achievement that leaves readers very little room for doubt of its power or the pleasure of spending time in its company. Several novels further into my quest to read the world, Gaiman’s characters still people my daydreams. Thanks Carol for introducing us.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman. Publisher (Kindle edition): Review (2011)

Antigua and Barbuda: a new departure

Migration has cropped up many times in the books I’ve read so far this year. From tension built on the disparity between regions in a single country, in works such as Ismail Kardare’s Broken April and Mario Vargas Llosa’s Death in the Andes, to countries where emigration almost seems part of the national psyche, as in Andrei Volos’s Hurramabad and the Lithuanian anthology, the challenge of moving from one place to another seems to be a favourite topic for storytellers the world over.

Perhaps it’s inevitable that books that bridge several cultures are more likely to find an international audience. But it’s also true that there are few scenarios calculated to show up the fault lines in individuals and societies more clearly than the arrival of an outsider.

For all the books on the subject though you’d have to go a long way to find a pithier migration tale than Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy. Following the fortunes of a 19-year-old girl who leaves her home in the Caribbean to work as an au pair in the USA, the 1990 novel looks at the rupture that relocation can cause in a life, ‘like a flow of water dividing formerly dry and solid ground’, and provides a fresh, feisty and at times alarming perspective on the land of the free and on British colonialism.

From the first, Lucy’s blunt yet humane account of life with her wealthy white employers Mariah and Lewis provides some powerful insights into the contradictions of modern life. Through Lucy, we see the blind hypocrisy of Mariah’s well-meant involvement with a nature preservation campaign — ‘I couldn’t bring myself to ask her to examine Lewis’s daily conversation with his stockbroker, to see if they bore any relation to the things she saw passing away forever before her eyes’ — and the hollowness of the idyllic nuclear family she has constructed around her, a fiction to which she clings in the face of mounting evidence of her husband’s affair with one of her friends.

More interesting still is the depiction of the gulf between Mariah and Lucy, which their contrasting experiences of freedom and colonialism have engendered and which no amount of good will on both sides can conquer completely. This is powerfully summed up in Lucy’s violent reaction to a bunch of daffodils Mariah brings home. Seeing the flowers for the first time in her life, she is reminded of being made to learn and recite a poem about them at the Queen Victoria Girls’ School when she was 10. After the anger evoked by the memory subsides, she realises that ‘nothing could change the fact that where [Mariah] saw beautiful flowers I saw sorrow and bitterness’.

Lucy is no passive victim, though. Irreverent, strong-willed and uninhibited, she refuses to conform to the expectations of others and is determined to seize and taste all the experience she can. This makes her both likeable and compelling as she bucks against the ties that link her to the homeland she loves and despises.

 As she comes to ‘see the sameness in things that appear to be different’, it’s impossible not to share her sadness at the compromised nature of the world. Independence it seems, whether personal or national, is infinitely more than a question of geography.

Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid. Publisher (this edition): Plume (1991)

Mexico: food for thought

 

If the test of great literature is whether it gets people to think about doing things differently, then Laura Esquivel‘s 1989 novel Like Water for Chocolate is up there with the best. Packed with mouthwatering recipes for all sorts of Mexican delicacies, it tempts readers to leap up and run to the local delicatessen in search of chorizo, chilis and jalapenos on every other page.

There’s a good reason for the intensity of flavours spicing the narrative: centring on the heartbroken Tita, the last child in a family where tradition states that the youngest daughter must remain single and care for her mother until one of them dies, it charts the heroine’s mounting frustrations as she works day after day preparing food in the family kitchen unable to marry her sweetheart Pedro. But no-one has reckoned on the effect that all that pent up passion may have on a person’s cooking, and when Pedro becomes engaged to her sister Tita is unable to help her feelings infusing the delicious wedding feast, with surprising results.

There are many familiar ingredients peppering the pages: a dash of Cinderella here, a dollop of Salman Rushdie’s emotion-infused chutneys in Midnight’s Children there, and a whole handful of Lorca’s Bernarda Alba in the tyrannical figure of Mama Elena. Nevertheless, like the best cooks, Esquivel manages to bring her own twist to these tried and tested staples, creating something deliciously new.

We may think we recognise magical realism in some of the more outlandish features — the tears that flood a staircase, the quilt so large that it drags behind a carriage like a wedding train, the sex so incendiary that it sets fire to buildings (unless I’ve really missed out) — but a closer look suggests that something subtly different is at work.

Rather than magical elements blending with the real world, these events seem to be emotional projections from the characters themselves, which may or may not be happening. ‘The simple truth is that the truth does not exist; it all depends on a person’s point of view’, explains Tita’s gutsy older sister Gertrudis, in an uncharacteristically obvious aside.

Esquivel, however, leaves you to help yourself to the wider philosophical implications as you choose. Her central achievement has been to serve up an immensely satisfying read garnished with wit and originality, and so sensual that it is guaranteed to have you craving Mexican food. Bagsy the Christmas rolls!

Like Water for Chocolate: A Novel in Monthly Installments with Recipes, Romances and Home Remedies by Laura Esquivel (translated from the Spanish by Carol and Thomas Christensen). Publisher (Kindle edition): Anchor (2002)