This is a vibrant and engaging book as befits its rural setting of Watersgate, Jamaica. I had not come across the author before but, despite its rather weak ending, this introduction makes me want to seek out other works. The author, an academic and poet, writes with the intertwined skills of a storyteller and poet.
The central character is Imelda Richardson, a 30-year old who has returned to the village in the mid-1980s after leaving for England a decade earlier and eventually taking a law degree in Manchester. The book is almost a collection of short stories clustered around a group of memorable characters living in in Watersgate, including the town gossip Miss Millie [who later transforms into the rabid Evangelist Millie], the pentecostal Pastor Braithwaite, Eulen Solomon and Superintendent Carmichael [two professionals who are also gay], the rather dim Young Constable Brown, Rastafarian outsider Joseph whose love for Imelda is achingly portrayed, and the washerwoman Tessa Walcott, whose missing polka-dotted underwear is threaded through the book and whose family relationships are heartbreakingly described.
Imelda’s period in England, part of which is related through letters from her Antiguan friend Ozzie [whose language is peppered with words from the dictionaries he collects and studies] introduces her landlady, Purletta Johnson, who grows and uses cannabis. It is the increased focus on Johnson that causes some of the disappointment of the last few pages.
The stories, presented in a very readable and assured manner, jump around chronologically from the early 1950s to the mid-1980s and blend humour, pathos and graphic depictions of location to present a truly three-dimensional portrait of the island and its peoples. The backdrop to the book is the movement of islanders to Britain and their return bringing knowledge and experience that they exploit enthusiastically. However, they quickly find themselves between cultures, unable to fully return to the lifestyles and relationships that they left behind.
Underlying tensions, hypocrisy and jealousies amongst the villagers are evocatively and humourously presented, and the dialects and religious fervor both help whip the book along. Although suffused with humour, the author never allows this to obstruct the serious undertones of the social and political aspects of his narrative. Not least is the assured but sensitive manner in which he deals with police brutality and judicial disinterest, and [more surprisingly] with homosexuality in an environment of homophobia and religious bigotry. Religion seeps through the book, through clashes between older and newer preachers, search for a new pastor, the flock-like faith and joyous outbursts of the congregation, and symbolic references to floods and expiation of sin.
Literary explorations of emigration from the West Indies, discrimination and homesickness are many, as are the difficulties of returning home and fitting in again. Miller deals with these in a very deft but personal manner, and shows how the latter can wear down even the strongest of spirits. However, the kaleidoscopic nature of the narrative slightly dissipates its impact.
Comparisons are made on the front cover with Andrea Levy and Alexander McCall Smith, presumably because of its layered mix of naivety and complexity. Much as I enjoyed this book, I hope that Miller will move on from the lives of the Watersgate villagers and the simplicity of knitting short stories together to create a longer and somewhat rambling narrative.
on 15 January 2010
This book took me by surprise. I hadn't heard of the book before or the author but decided to purchase it anyway because I wanted to read a book based in Jamaica.
From start to finish I could not put the book down. It is entertaining and refreshing with some hilarious bits that make you laugh out loud. If you are Jamaican, or know Jamaican's or have been to Jamaica you will love this book because the author has a canny way of capturing the essence of Jamaican life.