Book buzz | Reviews (Jan/Feb 2023)

This month’s reading picks from the Caribbean, with reviews of The Dreaming by Andre Bagoo; The Island of Forgetting by Jasmine Sealy; What A Mother’s Love Don’t Teach You by Sharma Taylor; and What Noise Against the Cane by Desiree C Bailey

The Dreaming

by Andre Bagoo (Peepal Tree Press, 168 pp, ISBN 9781845235369)

Gay desire is not new to the Caribbean, and these short stories don’t pretend otherwise. Rather, in Bagoo’s fiction debut, the lives of gay Trinidadian men — closeted, out, positive, negative — are presented with a fullness of human experience. Employing a satirist’s precision, a humourist’s warmth, and a bacchanalist’s passion, the author guides us through one-night stands and symbolic haircuts, down narrative alleyways strewn with Family Planning condoms, polyamorous negotiations, and Nina Simone crooning in upscale Port of Spain coffeeshops. There are men in these stories you’ll want to know, men in these pages you’ll wish you could be: Bagoo’s wry, animate prose is full of the familiar, yet so inventively told that discoveries lurk and limbo in each plot twist. The urban gridwork of T&T is as impressively a character in The Dreaming: the city contains queer multitudes.

The Island of Forgetting

by Jasmine Sealy (The Borough Press, 336 pp, ISBN 9780008532895)

What happens when domestic drama meets a reinvention of the classics? Jasmine Sealy’s first novel holds the rum-soaked, cautionary answer: don’t expect an island to be a paradise. Commanding the Greek myths of fabled heroes with virtuosity, Barbadian-Canadian Sealy casts generational waves of trauma, cognitive dissociation, community building, and hard-wrought connections on the tides of her storytelling. In shifting protagonist worldviews, four generations of a haunted family pursue happiness at untenable costs, grappling with spectres of racialised hatred, homosexuality, substance abuse, colourism, and the price of keeping quiet about these and other insidious oppressions. As lushly atmospheric as Tiphanie Yanique’s Land of Love and Drowning, with a freighted fury reminiscent of Nicole Dennis-Benn’s Here Comes the Sun, The Island of Forgetting is both saga and spellbinder.

What A Mother’s Love Don’t Teach You

by Sharma Taylor (Virago, 432 pp, ISBN 9780349015538)

Dinah knows her son will have a better life the moment he ceases to be hers. Giving up her only child feels like a thorny inevitability: Lazarus Gardens, in all its bullet-riddled criminality, is no place for her own future, let alone her infant’s. As Sharma Taylor’s debut proves with fevered intensity, some threads remain unbreakable despite the cruel vicissitudes of fate. Guiding her novel with a tension-laced economy, Taylor offers a prismatic cast of figures swirling around Dinah and her estranged son. In the voices of gang leaders and snake-tongued statesmen, redoubtable matriarchs and kiss-teeth gossips, the multiple worlds of 1980s Jamaica soar to life, vividly and dramatically realised. What a Mother’s Love Don’t Teach You joins a formidable contemporary canon that refuses to portray the Caribbean as idyllic pastiche. It’s a tender triumph. 

What Noise Against the Cane

by Desiree C Bailey (Yale University Press, 96 pp, ISBN 9780300256536)

Ocean, air and earth: all forms of nature are called to bear witness to the Black woman’s journey to freedom in What Noise Against the Cane, a first collection of poems ululating with ventriloquist powers. In the traditions of Lorde and NourbeSe Philip, yet wielding an exploratory lyricism all her own, Trinidadian-American Bailey forges emblems of resistance and rebellion on the page, including “Sea Voice”, the chant of a speaker that runs along the bottom margin of the entire book. The rhythms of Carnival abound here, as does the susurration of sugarcane bristling in the wind: the poet is attendant to these multilayered frequencies, turning her ear to the sounds that generate and animate life itself. As a pivotal poem invokes, we pray that our dead / will not forget the chant below our skins.