I wrote in my last post about the difficulties many authors have describing sex. However it’s by no means true of all. And you’d be hard pushed to find an example of how to (erhem) do it well than Buxton Spice by Oonya Kempadoo.
Set in the fictional coastal village of Tamarind Grove in 1970’s Guyana, the novel charts the sexual, social and political awakening of a young girl, Lula. As she observes the complex, painful and mysterious relationships of the people around her — and begins to have experiences of her own — Lula tests the boundaries of her identity and growing awareness of the hidden mechanisms of the world.
Sex is graphically and variously present in the narrative, with teen fumblings, lesbian encounters, rape and voyeurism all playing a part. What makes it compelling is the freshness and vitality of Kempadoo’s language — utterly devoid of the clumsy clichés and euphemisms that make most sex scenes so excruciating — and the way she uses the physical acts to map the shifting power dynamics between her characters.
Less successful is the overall narrative structure, which rambles between fragments of experience, roping in an unnecessarily large cast of characters. Kempadoo pulls this together to some extent at the end, but the softness of focus niggles. At times, reading the book feels a bit like watching a Polaroid develop only to find that the picture was blurred all along.
In the finish, though, Kempadoo’s poetic vision and her fizzing Creole keep the pages turning. She uses these to deliver a portrait of lost childhood that is at once universal and steeped in a very particular time and place. And if you’ve ever wondered what uses two teenage girls can come up with for a battery, the answers are right here…
Incidentally, my decision to categorise Oonya Kempadoo as a Guyanese novelist is slightly controversial. Although Kempadoo was born of Guyanese parents, raised in Guyana and still holds citizenship (alongside citizenship for several other countries), she identifies as Grenadian.
I changed the book to my Grenada entry for a while because of this, but on reading Buxton Spice I felt that it was so rooted in Guyana and drew so strongly on Kempadoo’s childhood there that it would be wrong to classify it as anything other than Guyanese literature.
I’m ready to be persuaded otherwise though, so if you have different thoughts on what constitutes a book’s national identity please let me know.
Buxton Spice by Oonya Kempadoo (original language: English/Creole). Publisher: Phoenix (1998)