The Lost Child by Caryl Phillips

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger

Welcome to the 2015 Paper Based Advent Book Blog! Day Seven’s pick elegantly and masterfully swoops in, especially for lovers of classic literature rekindled in contemporary contexts: Caryl Phillips’ The Lost Child.

It’s an herculean task, mapping the complicated, indistinct portrait of the famous antihero Heathcliff, made broodingly remarkable in Emily Brontë‘s Victorian classic, Wuthering Heights. Where did Heathcliff come from? Of what were his dubious origins, and what matter of events shaped him into the moor-wandering man, bleak lover and passionately haunted figure who reigns powerfully in libraries everywhere? Phillips’ supple, unsentimental prose concerns itself with Heathcliff, bordering the novel with scenes from that character’s nascent journeys and imaginings.

This is no mere rewriting of Wuthering Heights, however: the author weaves Heathcliff’s narrative into the larger concerns of Monica Johnson, a twentieth century mother to two sons who finds herself, through a series of increasingly more dire events, at the ends of her endurance and capacity to thrive — both as caregiver for her children, and ultimately for herself. The Lost Child inhabits Yorkshire moors with no less grim significance than did Brontë‘s opus, and in a scene featuring a certain one-time authoress of ill health herself, that savage hinterland still beckons:

“She can see now that the morning light is already fading and the afternoon is preparing to set in misty and cold. Beyond the swaying tree, beyond the church, are the wild moors that call to her to rise from this confinement and race purposefully into the December wind and observe the landscape in its winter colours. I must go. Let me go.

Strategically juggling time periods, speakers and situations, Caryl Phillips shows how the orchestration of personal hungers leads refugees, stranded children, and starved minds to both bleak and beguiling ends. Less a morality tale and more of a musing on homelessness, exiles and the cruel poetry of the void, The Lost Child is staggeringly beautiful writing on several grief-stricken lives.

We recommend it for: lovers of Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys’ classic Caribbean response to Charlotte Brontë‘s Jane Eyre; anyone who’s been drawn to the difficult mystery of Heathcliff; readers of Hanif Kureishi and Salman Rushdie.

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The Ten Days Executive by Rhoda Bharath

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger

Welcome to the 2015 Paper Based Advent Book Blog! Day Five’s pick is one of the four titles launched at this year’s NGC Bocas Lit Fest: a powerful eye-opener in short fiction for those (Trini and otherwise) who shy away from headline news and the true-life horror stories that grow close to home: Rhoda Bharath’s The Ten Days Executive.

Many a man, woman and politician has been felled by pride, puncheon and party-card mentality: at the intersection of these three bacchanals, these short stories shine with an unapologetic savvy knowingness of T & T space. Sallying forth with a lioness’ share of narrative gumption, Bharath’s fiction debut focuses on sharks in suits, smart people made stupid by lyrics, stalwart youthmen facing down the barrel of society’s prejudice, amid many other tales worth telling. In a land where most are for sale, these stories ask their readers to face up to the prices we exact in the name of love and liberty.

What resonates most about Bharath’s fiction is that it’s never cut too distantly from the fabric of reality: the fodder for these (a)morality tales could have been plausibly culled from Express and Guardian headlines, developed to detail those whose lives act as collateral damage for high-stakes fancies and under-the-table dealings. Rather than each story being  reduced as a “political” examination, The Ten Days Executive shows how politics infuses the ground-structure of personal lives: that politics means more than merely PNM vs UNC: it’s in skintone hue; Convent accent or lack thereof; Carnival wildness; police brutality, and all the ways citizens survive in our rainbow islands. These colours, proudly touted in Benetton ads as signs of unity, often carry darker portents, as the author shows in “Breast Pocket”, detailing a dangerous relationship which is no rarity:

“Because he skin red, he used to tell me all kinda thing, like how my skin so black and I should paint my skin white so that at least when we have outage he could see where my black ass hiding. If that was really the case I woulda wish for power outage all the time, because then he woulda never see me.”

You might not be able to trust everything you read in the newspapers, but you can trust in the honest, relentless heart of Rhoda Bharath’s fiction — no short story collection is less likely to lead you astray.

We recommend it for: lovers of Earl Lovelace’s Is Just a Movie; those who prefer their satire sharp and well-moulded, with a contemporary cache of references; sociopolitical pundits, bloggers and media mavens.

The Whale House by Sharon Millar

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger

Welcome to the 2015 Paper Based Advent Book Blog! Day Two’s selection brings us one of Peepal Tree Press’ outstanding debut short fiction collections of this year, launched at the NGC Bocas Lit Fest, and since fêted to significant critical acclaim: Sharon Millar’s The Whale House.

If Sharon Millar were a markswoman, you get the impression she would keep her hands steady, her aim unerring, and her powder dry: that’s how the stories in The Whale House hold themselves up on the page. An unsentimental dismantling of complex constructs is Millar’s forte: here, she tackles grief and decay in both the human and natural environment, suggesting that we’re more like the beasts we hunt than we’d like to believe.

The author doesn’t villify or exalt any of her characters in absolute terms: instead, she shows them set in stark, often brutal relief against scenes of stunning beauty and inevitable decay. She tackles a mother’s heartrending resignation to a deep-rooted illness; another mother grappling with rage and fear, learning of her child’s murder; a master cockfighter who prizes both his champion roosters and his mysterious, witching woman: this is a Trinidad at once familiar and seductive in its insights, in its capacity to make new alcoves out of everyday destinations.

The whole is woven with an awareness of the environment, of its capacity to cradle and destroy, that grounds this collection with certainty as ancient as bedrock, as beautiful as a waterfall’s cascade. As the principal figure of the final story, “Spelunking”, remarks:

“The forest has no time for town shenanigans like flashy planes or making the village my own exotic backdrop. The forest has an instinct for this type of behaviour, even if you hide it from yourself.”

You might come to the book for Millar’s Commonwealth prizewinning story, which is the work’s titular piece, but you’ll stay for the whole, astonishingly well-knit ecosystem.

We recommend it for: field naturalists with an affinity for poetry in their scientific research; readers of Alice Munro and Elizabeth Walcott-Hackshaw; fans of well-plotted stories marked by sensually replete language and symbolism.

The Star Side of Bird Hill by Naomi Jackson

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger

Welcome to the 2015 Paper Based Advent Book Blog! Every day from now til Christmas, we’ll be bringing you handpicked selections from the very best of current and classic Caribbean literary shelves (with one or two international picks stirred in). Each title will be accompanied by recommendations for its ideal reader, to aid you in your Yuletide gift selections — and we’re thrilled to unfurl our seasonal book banner with a gorgeous coming of age debut, Naomi Jackson’s The Star Side of Bird Hill.

Sisters Dionne and Phaedra are no strangers to tumultuous journeys. They’ve had their lives uprooted and resettled in Barbados, where the rules are different, the sea closer and brighter, and the nights filled with a new kind of magic. Sharply different in temperament, both girls negotiate the rule of their stern, wise grandmother, Hyacinth — and the world of changes that lingers just outside their Bird Hill doorstep. They learn quickly that “home” is a complex, sometimes infuriating destination:

“Ask a Bajan where their navel string is buried and you will get as many answers as people you ask, and all of them will have to do with home.”

Steering clear of a postcard-glossy portrait of Barbados, Jackson paints a world in which women’s voices have the power to upbraid, cleanse, curse and heal. Hyacinth describes herself as one who sometimes needs nightfall to hear herself properly, and both her granddaughters learn to find their power — separate yet united by familial threads — in a society where everyone’s personal affairs are laid bare, where untold beauty grapples with sneaking suspicion and sequestered secrets. Even when things are at their most despair-laden, the three women whose lives, losses and victories fill this novel with richness and depth reach for something more within themselves.

It is in the process of weaving these family ties that the novelist makes her realms of matriarchy and cultural fusion shine, showing that long roads to peace can be marked by miraculous signposts as much as maelstroms.

We recommend it for: lovers of strong, capable female protagonists; readers of Tiphanie Yanique and Cristina García ; those who enjoy their bildungsromans with bite, colour and lyrical storytelling beauty.

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger

A hungry, soaring triumph of a story, Marlon James’ third novel more than confirms his reputation as a teller of good tales – it announces A Brief History of Seven Killings as this year’s unequivocal must-read, a titan in its own class. Tackling Bob Marley’s life in music and out of it, James catapults the reader through several decades, bringing us hosts of players both foul and fair, duking it out in wars (and rumours of wars). He knits the whole with dizzying talent, exploring violence and the potent triad of sex, drugs and reggae, showing us the true faces of Jamaicans in love with each other, the music, and Jah on high.

In our Christmas newsletter last year, we praised this as the ideal triad-topper, for those seeking to complete their Marlon James oeuvre. Though the focal points of each narrative are distinct, if you loved John Crow’s Devil and The Book of Night Women, you’ll thrill to James’ storytelling strengths ringing true for a third time. It’s a sure bet for lovers of experimental fiction that flouts easy pigeonholing, for readers of Irvine Welsh and Iain M. Banks.

With a cast of characters this diverse, there’s always someone to root for, as much as there’s someone else to revile: James’ prowess in this richer-than-contraband-rum world weaving is that the differences between people shine as much as their similarities. In music, corruption and the desire for more, these men, women and not so fresh-faced youths curse and love each other with all the human desperation that everyday living affords.

“But in another city, another valley, another ghetto, another slum, another favela, another township, another intifada, another war, another birth, somebody is singing Redemption Song, as if the Singer wrote it for no other reason but for this sufferah to sing, shout, whisper, weep, bawl, and scream right here, right now.”

Perhaps one of the chiefest pleasures of A Brief History of Seven Killings, winner of the 2015 Man Booker Prize for Fiction, is to remind us in searing, sharply ambitious writing that life is happening all around us, in every impossible breath.

House of Ashes by Monique Roffey

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger

To borrow the title of Mohsin Hamid’s 2007 novel, the protagonist of Roffey’s fourth fiction book is every inch the reluctant fundamentalist. Ashes, a mild, pious scholar, finds himself swept up in the bloody carnival of a coup d’état gone terribly wrong: one that leaves him, gun-toting and terrified, in the ransacked House of Power of fictitious Caribbean island, Sans Amen. Roffey’s courageous take on the events of T & T’s 1990 attempted coup reads with a sense of suspended incredulity at its own unbelievably murky waters. Seldom has there been this level of vigorous creative interpretation with one of our nation’s most harrowing – and still, least resolved – psychological traumas. In this novel, no one, from reckless politicians to ideologically motivated terrorists, escapes criticism, and no one is cast as blameless in Sans Amen’s ledger of sins.

In our Christmas newsletter last year, we eagerly endorsed Monique’s newest novel for lovers of politically thrilling, intriguing reads; Trinbagonians who won’t shy away from an uneasy analysis of their own country; those who’ve read and appreciated Raoul Pantin’s Days of Wrath. The work has gone on to reap juried acclaim, earning spots on both the 2014 Costa Novel Award shortlist and the 2015 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature longlist.

A telling exchange between Minister for the Environment, Aspasia Garland, and Breeze, the weapon-wielding youth holding her hostage, poignantly underscores one of the novel’s many divides in privilege and power. Aspasia wonders, regarding Breeze with a medley of dread and sympathy,

“about the size of this young boy’s world. Had he ever swum in the sea along the north coast of his own island? Had an adult ever taken him over the mountains to get to the sea? If he was from the slums in the east of the City of Silk, there was no reason he should know about, let alone care about sea creatures.”

Many moments of sensitive portrayal, of the plights of government ministers and ghetto insurrectionists in equal measure, mark the trajectory of House of Ashes, a novel that stands proudly in the cache of Roffey’s brave storytelling.

Limbo by Esther Figueroa

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger

Few debut novels can lay claim to mapping a nation’s environmental heart, yet this is what Esther Figueroa’s Limbo seeks to delineate from its opening pages. To hear the story’s feisty and emotionally volatile narrator, Flora Smith, tell it, Jamaica’s lack of concern for the very land and ocean that its inhabitants call home will be its ruination. Flora struggles to keep her small environmental NGO afloat, seeking respite in the counsel of her dearest friend Lilac, with whom she can share her deepest grievances, romantic frustrations and giddy recollections of youth.

When large-scale corruption, linked to beach sand-mining, raps ominously on Flora’s door, how the environmentalist responds will determine not just the future of her intrepid NGO, but her own personal safety, too.

Limbo is a story as devoted to the bonds we make with kindred spirits as it is a satirical examination of humanity’s worst crimes against a landscape it ought to nurture and respect. Figueroa pulls no punches in her dire analysis of man’s relationship with the great outdoors, using Flora as a convincing, impassioned mouthpiece in the eco-conservationist’s often-thankless battle.

“What circle of hell is reserved for those who have done irreparable damage? What should be their eternal damnation?” Flora asks herself, in the aftermath of uncovering some distressing abuse of coral reef systems. Grimly, she concludes: “For those who enrich themselves through lies and silence, let them listen to a ceaseless, blaring, tuneless chorus singing of the consequences of their actions.”

A passionate, playful romp through Jamaica’s yet-untrampled wilderness, Limbo‘s pages are equally heavy with pronouncements against the ecologically unaware. Limbo reminds the reader that our vast enjoyment of life is critically linked to how well we honour the lakes and rivers, the sand and sea of our Caribbean homes.