Beka Lamb by Zee Edgell

Beka Lamb tells the story of a few months in the life of a fourteen-year-old girl — Beka — and her slightly older friend Toycie, who both attend a convent school in Belize. It’s published as part of the Heinemann Caribbean Writers Series, and so it has one of those rather off-puttingly institutional covers that makes me feel like I’m back in school. And indeed I’m sure it works well as a GCSE set text: it’s short, it’s about a teenager, it has lots of themes that would provide material for classroom discussion (race, class, politics, colonialism, teenage pregnancy) and it has lots of local colour.

Saturday, pay day for many families, was the biggest marketing, house-cleaning, and cooking day of the week. women and girls, whether they lived in a ‘good house’ or a ‘dawg-siddown’ scrubbed, dusted, polished and cooked in order that they might do as they pleased Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, satisfied that their duty, as best as could be managed with what was available, had been done.

Lunch on a Saturday was mostly crushed avocado or potted meat sandwiches, with perhaps pounded calves’ liver fried with lots of onions and creole bread for six o’clock tea. But the intense activity, and the smells of what was to come on Sunday noon, assuaged the need for bigger meals. In the houses of even the poorest, at the very least red kidney beans and bits of salty pigtails stewed on outdoor fire hearths waiting for the addition of raw rice, assiduously picked over for stones, and washed several times until the water ran clear. And in the houses of those that could better afford it, chickens, pork, or beef roasted in ovens; great pots of grey-black relleno soup thickened on stoves with a dozen hard-boild eggs per pot bobbing up and down like dumplings, and the corn mills of the town ground busily in preparation for the mounds of tortillas that would be needed the following day. Seafood and groundfood were rarely cooked on Sundays: fish, crayfish, conch, yams, cocoa, sweet potatoes, breadfruit and the like were everyday fare.

In fact I think it’s a quirk of a certain kind of post-colonial novel to almost overdo the local colour. The book is absolutely full of references to foodstuffs, flowers and trees, bits of local tradition, references to history; it’s like one long assertion of Belizeyness. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing; in fact I enjoy all that stuff (particularly the food!). It’s just an observation of a phase that, perhaps, national literatures tend to go through.

I did enjoy this book, btw, so I hope my comments don’t across as negative. I enjoyed all the descriptive stuff, found the story engaging, and learn at least slightly more about Belize than I knew before. So that’s all good.

Beka Lamb is my book from Belize for the Read The World challenge, and is also my fifth book for the Caribbean Reading Challenge.

» The picture, ‘Relleno Negro‘, is © moviesandcheese. I don’t think it was taken in Belize, but it’s clearly much the same dish.


Masters of the Dew by Jacques Roumain

When I opened the package and saw the cover, I thought for a moment that the bookseller had cocked up and sent me a romance novel by mistake. But they hadn’t; Masters of the Dew is that slightly curious thing, a peasant novel. Curious because, generally speaking, peasants don’t write novels — the hero of this story is illiterate, in fact — so these books are written by outsiders, for whatever reasons of their own.

Jacques Roumain was from a wealthy Haitian family, educated in Europe, a politician, ethnologist and at the time of writing this book in 1944, a diplomat. He was part of the nationalist resistance against American occupation, founded the Haitian communist party, and later founded the Bureau d’Ethnologie. I imagine that the ethnology itself was originally political, as is so often the case: a wish to celebrate an authentic local identity creates an interest in traditional peasant culture. But certainly you can see how the nationalism, the communism and the ethnology would all feed into a peasant novel.


And given that background, it’s not a complete surprise that this is a novel about a strong, handsome peasant, uneducated but thoughtful and eloquent, sincere and full of integrity, who returns from working in Cuba, where he has been politically awakened by the experience of sugar-cane workers striking for better pay, and teaches the other villagers that only by working together, and putting aside their feuding, can they save their village — in this case by creating a new irrigation system.

However, the fact that the political messaging is a bit unsubtle — there’s also a corrupt local police chief and when one of the characters dies, they can’t have a church funeral because they can’t afford the fees — doesn’t make this a bad book. The descriptive passages are particularly strong and the dialogue is effective too, although apparently we are missing a certain amount in translation. In the original, Roumain apparently struck a compromise between using Haitian creole — which would have been authentic but difficult for his French-speaking readers — and putting pure French into the mouths of his peasant characters; songs and proverbs are quoted in creole and the dialogue is sprinkled with creole words. The translators, Langston Hughes and Mercer Cook, rather than trying to find suitable English equivalents or having the characters speak some kind of rural American dialect as a substitute, has them speaking standard English. I think that’s probably a solid decision, but there’s a whole layer of local flavour which is lost.

She sat next to him, leaning against the trunk of a macaw tree, her dress spread around her, and she clasped her hands around her knees.

The plain unfolded before them, surrounded by the hills. from here they could see the mingling of acacia trees, huts dispersed in the clearings, fields abandoned to the ravages of drought, and in the glare of the savanna, scattered cattle moving. Above this desolation crows on the wing hovered. Over and over they made the same circuit, perched on the cactus, and, frightened for some reason, flayed the silence with their harsh cawing.

Masters of the Dew is my book from Haiti for the Read The World challenge, and also my fourth book for the Caribbean Reading Challenge.

» The photo is ‘Degraded mountains‘, © Trees for the Future and used under a CC attribution licence. The damaging effect of deforestation comes up in the novel.

The description for that photo on Flickr says ‘The degraded mountain of Tibois (Top of Arcahaie)’; according to Wikipedia’s Arcahaie entry ‘the weather in this little quiet place is extremely pleasant and the feelings is unbelievable.’ Although I expect sooner or later some killjoy will edit it.


Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid

After really struggling with that Ugandan novel recently, I picked up Annie John to read next because it is admirably short: 148 pages. Just about enough to feel like a short novel rather than a long story, but I was still able to read it one sitting.


It is the story of Annie John, a girl growing up in Antigua, told in the first person. Not surprisingly, perhaps, given the length, it is one of those books where not very much happens. There are a few incidents—an illness, some friendships—but nothing very remarkable. The focus is on Annie’s relationship with her mother, which starts out very close but becomes increasingly conflicted in adolescence, and ends in a somewhat open-ended way with her leaving home. Which obviously ends that chapter of her life but doesn’t provide any particularly tidy resolution.

Hedgie provides a fuller account of the book over at his place, so I’ll leave it at that and just say that I thoroughly enjoyed it, and quote a bit:

During my holidays from school, I was allowed to stay in bed long after my father had gone to work. He left our house every weekday at the stroke of seven by the Anglican church bell. I would lie in bed awake, and I could hear all the sounds my parents made as they prepared for the day ahead. As my mother made my father his breakfast, my father would shave, using his shaving brush that had an ivory handle and a razor that matched; then he would step outside to the little shed he had built for us as a bathroom, to quickly bathe in water that he had instructed my mother to leave outside overnight in the dew. That way, the water would be very cold, and he believed that cold water strengthened his back. If I had been a boy, I would have gotten the same treatment, but since I was a girl, and on top of that went to a school only with other girls, my mother would always add some hot water to my bathwater to take off the chill. On Sunday afternoons, while I was in Sunday school, my father took a hot bath; the tub was half filled with plain water, and then my mother would add a large cauldronful of water in which she had just boiled some bark and leaves from a bay-leaf tree. The bark and leaves were there for no reason other than that he liked the smell. He would spend hours lying in this bath, studying his pool coupons or drawing examples of pieces of furniture he planned to make. When i came home from Sunday  school, we would sit down to our Sunday dinner.

Annie John is my book from Antigua and Barbuda for the Read The World challenge, and my third book for the Caribbean Reading Challenge.

» The picture was taken on Antigua but has no other particular connection to the book. Nice though, I thought. I found it on Flickr; it is © Jeremy Quinn and used under a CC by-nc-sa licence.


Caribbean Reading Challenge: my list

My list for Scavella’s Caribbean Reading Challenge. I actually haven’t really decided on most of the books for my list yet, but I thought it would be useful to have a single place to put them anyway. So here we go:

  1. The President, Miguel Angel Asturias (Guatemala)
  2. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Díaz (Dominican Republic)
  3. Annie John, Jamaica Kincaid (Antigua)
  4. Masters of the Dew, Jacques Roumain (Haiti)
  5. Beka Lamb, Zee Edgell (Belize)
  6. ???

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz

I really enjoyed this one; it’s lively, full of energy. Funny. It’s written in a colloquial style, sprinkled with slang, bits of Spanish and SF references.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a novel about a Dominican family in New Jersey. Oscar himself, obese and nerdy, was born in New York, but the book interleaves his story with the family history; his mother’s life in the Dominican Republic, then further back again to tell the story of her parents. It is, among other things, about the immigrant experience, about being a Dominican in New Jersey but always slightly an outsider in the DR. And what it means to be Dominican anyway if you can’t live up to the stereotype, if you are in fact a fat nerd. And the sections about his family before they left the DR, there are other things: life under dictatorship and so on. 

Glancing over the Goodreads reviews, they seem to mainly trend towards OMG this is teh best novel EVAR with a sprinkling of people who are irritated by one or other of the books quirks: the heavy use of Spanglish, the footnotes, the multiple narrators, the fact that the book is only partly about what the title says it’s about. One of the people in my mother’s book group  apparently disliked it because he likes books to start at the beginning and then go in a straight line to the end.

You probably have a pretty good idea before you start what your tolerance is like for that kind of thing; personally the non-linear narrative and the various narrative voices don’t bother me at all, and while I’m not a big fan of footnotes in novels they weren’t especially irritating in this book. The Spanglish/Spanish was more of a problem for me personally because I don’t know any Spanish, and while a combination of context and the remnants of the French and Latin I learned in school were enough to deduce what some words meant, whole sentences were generally beyond me. I’m certainly not suggesting that he shouldn’t have used the Spanish, and it added to my enjoyment more than it spoiled it, but I was probably missing out on a lot of what was going on. Caveat emptor.

I wouldn’t go quite as far as best book EVAR either; I don’t think it’s even the best novel I’ve read this year, and I’ve only read two. But I did thoroughly enjoy it. Here’s an extract:

It seemed to Oscar that from the moment Maritza dumped him—Shazam!—his life started going down the tubes. Over the next couple of years he grew fatter and fatter. Early adolescence hit him especially hard, scrambling his face into nothing you could call cute, splotching his face with zits, making him self-conscious, and his interest—in Genres!—which nobody had said boo about before, suddenly became synonymous with being a loser with a capital L. Couldn’t make friends for the life of him, too dorky, too shy, and (if the kids from his neighbourhood are to be believed) too weird (had a habit of using big words he had memorised only the day before). He no longer went anywhere near the girls because at best they ignored him, at worst they shrieked and called him gordo asqueroso! He forgot the perrito, forgot the pride he felt when women in the family had called him hombre. Did not kiss another girl for a long long time. As though almost everything he had in the girl department had burned up in that one fucking week.

Not that his “girlfriends” fared much better. It seemed that whatever bad no-love karma hit Oscar hit them too. By seventh grade Olga had grown huge and scary, a troll gene in her somewhere, started drinking 151 straight out the bottle and was finally taken out of school because she had a habit of screaming NATAS! in the middle of the homeroom. Even her breasts, when they finally emerged, were floppy and terrifying. Once on the bus Olga had called Oscar a cake eater, and he’d almost said, Look who’s talking, puerca, but he was afraid that she would rear back and trample him; his cool-index, already low, couldn’t have survived that kind of paliza, would have put him on par with the handicapped kids and with Joe Locorotundo, who was famous for masturbating in public.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz is my book from the Dominican Republic for the Read The World challenge, and is my second book for the Caribbean Reading Challenge.

» The photographs, Thanksgiving In Paterson, NJ and Desfile y Festival Dominicano de New Jersey, are both © and used under a Creative Commons by-nc licence.


The President by Miguel Angel Asturias

The President is my book from Guatemala for the Read The World challenge. I’m probably going to count it it towards Scavella’s Caribbean Reading Challenge as well, although I haven’t really worked out my list for that yet. It comes with one high recommendation: Asturias was, as it says on the cover, ‘Winner! Nobel Prize for Literature’.

It is a book about life under a dictatorship; at the beginning a Colonel is murdered under slightly freakish circumstances, and the repercussions spread out from there, starting with the President using the murder as a pretext to target other politicians. The President isn’t particularly about the president himself, but the psychological and social impact on other people of the arbitrary and ruthless exercise of power.

I have to say I was left slightly cold by it. I don’t know if I would have read it any differently if I’d checked to see when it was written before reading it (d’oh!). It turns out it was actually written between 1922 and 1933 (though not published until 1946), which makes some of the stylistic quirks seem rather more radical and others more forgivable.

The things I might need to forgive – i.e. what I found irritating – is a certain overwrought quality to the prose, typified by the plentiful use of ellipses… and exclamation marks! Knowing that the book was written at least four decades earlier than I thought provides a degree of context for that, I think; quite a lot of books from the interwar period have a hint of intellectual melodrama to them. When I was reading it, though, I just thought it might be a very dodgy translation.

And on the other hand, the surreal aspect to the writing – the narrative slips into almost dream-sequence passages, and the action and characterization is sometimes slightly grotesque – is clearly not, as I vaguely thought, a pale imitation of Marquez. Rather, Asturias is probably an important influence on a writer like GGM.

Still, this is all post facto stuff, and when I was reading it I was rather less charitable. It was sporadically brilliant – after reading the first chapter I really thought I was in for a treat – but it never quite gripped me. It follows various intertwined characters, which meant no strong central narrative to pull me back in once my attention started wandering.

Anyway, here’s an extract:

Nothing was visible ahead. Behind them crept the track like a long silent snake unrolling its fluid, smooth, frozen coils. The ribs of the earth could be counted in the meagre dried-up marshlands, untouched by winter. The trees raised themselves to the full height of their thick, sappy branches in order to breathe. The bonfires dazzled the eyes of the tired horses. A man turned his back to urinate. His legs were invisible. The time had come for his companions to take stock of their situation, but they were too busy cleaning their rifles with grease and bits of cotton that still smelt of woman. Death had been carrying them off one by one, withering them as they lay in their beds, with no advantage to their children  or anyone else. It was better to risk their lives and see what would come of that. Bullets feel nothing when they pierce a man’s body; to them flesh is like sweet warm air—air with a certain substance. And they whistle like birds. the time had come to take stock, but they were too busy sharpening the machetes the leaders of the revolution had brought from an ironmonger whose shop had been burned down. The sharpened edge was like the smile on a negro’s face.

 I think this is a good book which, for whatever reasons, didn’t grab me. Shrug.

» The picture is of José María Orellana, president of Guatemala when Asturias started writing the novel, as he appears on the one quetzal banknote. It is © Oscar Mota and used under a CC attribution licence.