Usually when I blog about adult fiction it is science fiction, but the teacher in me couldn’t resist giving you a chance to consider this book because it might just appeal to you. I opened this book and I was a kid again, listening as my grandmother’s lovingly judgemental church friends tisked and gossiped sotto voce about my parent’s divorce after they sweetly piled more food on my plate and reprimanded me for tearing my new church dress. I was a teenager again, embarrassed because my Meme called my bluff and dragged my sassy tail end out of that lake in front of everyone. Maybe you will recognize yourself, too, hopeful that the daddy who hasn’t seen you in years is really going to follow through on a promise just once, or angry that some adult left your young hands to pick up the pieces. I understand that the cover is scaring you in ways you never imagined a book cover could. Ignore it. Laugh at it. Tweet it as a cover fail, but read the summary and my thoughts before you dismiss it entirely.
This lyrical novel of community, betrayal, and love centers on an unforgettable matriarchal family in Barbados. Two sisters, ages ten and sixteen, are exiled from Brooklyn to Bird Hill in Barbados after their mother can no longer care for them. The young Phaedra and her older sister, Dionne, live for the summer of 1989 with their grandmother Hyacinth, a midwife and practitioner of the local spiritual practice of obeah.
Dionne spends the summer in search of love, testing her grandmother’s limits, and wanting to go home. Phaedra explores Bird Hill, where her family has lived for generations, accompanies her grandmother in her role as a midwife, and investigates their mother’s mysterious life.
This tautly paced coming-of-age story builds to a crisis when the father they barely know comes to Bird Hill to reclaim his daughters, and both Phaedra and Dionne must choose between the Brooklyn they once knew and loved or the Barbados of their family.
Jackson’s Barbados and her characters are singular, especially the wise Hyacinth and the heartbreaking young Phaedra, who is coming into her own as a young woman amid the tumult of her family.
My Thoughts, and there are many of them
I requested this book because it sounded in part like I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a book I have a love/hate relationship with. I wasn’t surprised to see that this book does have a similar feel, especially in terms of narrative structure. Rather than a tightly plotted and fast paced novel, this is more of a collection of carefully selected moments that reveal who these characters are and the events that shape who they become. The focus is on Dionne and Phaedra, the two girls sent to live with their grandmother in Barbados, but as the summer waxes and wanes, readers discover a lot about the essence and shape of their grandmother and mother as well. For some readers, this will come across as a disjointed storyline, but for others who see what the author is doing, it is a rather natural and beautiful development.
Like IKWCBS, There is also that sense of a foreign but tightly knitted community that slowly wraps it arms around the newcomers as Dionne and Phadre at first reject it for its differences before growing into its embrace. Readers will enjoy seeing how unique Bird Hill is in its beliefs and customs, but there is also a sense of universal humanity there as well. I was surprised at how much the experiences I had as a child were similar to the ones experienced by children in Brooklyn and Barbados. I saw a lot of parallels between the generation gaps and the workings of a small community that learns to condemn and ignore certain behaviors simultaneously in order to forge a fairly peaceful existence. It really reminded me of how literature truly is the universal language, and when it is fiction that throws in a little suffering, it can transcend almost any differences.
Unlike Maya Angelou’s work, these girls are not in a setting that has an extreme prejudice towards them, and they, luckily, escape abuse from those they trust. There is still a threat to them because there is always a chance at exploitation when you are female. There is still prejudice within their community, and it is explored. There are absolutely moments of truth about sexuality and race, but the road to coming of age is a lot less fraught with dangers for these siblings. I think that was my biggest fear about this book because it takes a lot of emotional fortitude to sit by Angelou as she traverses her world of tragedy and triumph. If you are shying away from this book for that same reason, let me assure you that this book is full of tragedy and triumph, but not on the same taxing scale.
I really liked this book for its style and setting. I enjoyed reading about these characters and the way one summer shaped them all in important but different ways. I think this book offers something to women of all generations who will see themselves in the girls they were, the women they are, or the women they will be.
I received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review