This month’s reading picks from the Caribbean, with reviews of The Bread the Devil Knead by Lisa Allen-Agostini; Easily Fooled by H. Nigel Thomas; Pandemic Poems: First Wave by Olive Senior; and The Gift of Music and Song: Interviews with Jamaican Women Writers by Jacqueline Bishop
The Bread the Devil Knead
by Lisa Allen-Agostini (Myriad Editions, 256 pp, ISBN 9781912408993)
On the cusp of her fortieth birthday, Alethea Lopez appears to have it all: a promising career, an ebullient circle of friends, a sense of style and panache that rivals haute couturiers in Paris ateliers. Beneath the surface, Allie is the victim of domestic abuse. The Bread the Devil Knead shows readers how permeable those distinctions between our private and public lives truly are, particularly when the secrets we’ve worked so hard to keep begin slipping through the fissures. Lisa Allen-Agostini, award-winning writer and co-editor of the popular Trinidad Noir anthology, delivers a searing narrative, tightly paced with moments of absolute mirth studded in between the necessary pain. Allie’s choices may often seem incomprehensible, until you realise they’re ones any fallible, real-life person might make. This is fiction that truly connects, difficult to face or forget.
by H. Nigel Thomas (Guernica Editions, 303 pp, ISBN 9781771835817)
St Vincent-born, Montreal-based writer H. Nigel Thomas returns with the third in a quartet of novels exploring the tempests and tendernesses of queer Caribbean-Canadian masculinity. We rejoin Jay and Paul, gay brothers in pursuit of more from life than closeted misery, and learn more about the significant others in the frameworks of their romantic and platonic intimacies. Migration and displacement are crucial to the world of Easily Fooled: as Thomas’s prose proves, arriving in “a safer place” is only the beginning of another, no less thorny journey. Amid reams of bureaucratic paperwork for citizenship, marriage certificates, failing domestic unions, and crumbling respectability, the central figure of the novel — Jay’s husband, Millington — navigates uneasy topographies of the body, head, and heart. All the emotional intricacy of the first two offerings in the quartet are enshrined and deepened herein.
Pandemic Poems: First Wave
by Olive Senior (self-published, 110 pp, ISBN 9781777452308)
It began in lockdown. Like countless others around the globe, Olive Senior found herself contending with the shock, alienation, and unheimlich experience of being in strict quarantine during 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic surged, crippling healthcare systems and exposing systemic medical inequities. How to respond to the helplessness, the almost violent nature of this loss? Senior put it in poetry. Less a rigorous abecedarian than a fluid alphabet, presented delightfully out of order, Pandemic Poems makes no didactic pronouncements about how we should survive this, only that if we are fortunate and strive together, we just might make it, while holding each other’s hands. These poems praise essential workers, small pleasures now lost (like unmasked embraces between strangers), taking inventory of everything we’ve been forced to forfeit, gaze trained stubbornly to the horizon with something like hope.
The Gift of Music and Song: Interviews with Jamaican Women Writers
by Jacqueline Bishop (Peepal Tree Press, 240 pp, ISBN 9781845234768)
Constructing a living archive requires diligence and unswerving devotion: Jacqueline Bishop, herself an artist of renown, displays both in these interviews. From Marcia Douglas’s experimental hybrid fictions, to Tanya Shirley’s radically sensuous poetics, Bishop’s skill as an interviewer is evident: each of these eighteen conversations foregrounds then builds upon the importance of Jamaica as a creative cradle. Celebrating the well-known, such as former and current Jamaican poets laureate Lorna Goodison and Olive Senior, while exhuming the influence of largely-forgotten literary stars (namely the fascinating herstory of lesbian novelist and poet Eliot Bliss), The Gift of Music and Song is generous in its reach. It ought to be of interest not only to Caribbean writers, but to anyone who believes women’s writing lives should be celebrated.