Novel Niche Recommends: Six Caribbean Novels

Dominican writer, Jean Rhys.

As January drew to a close, I found myself in a delightful conversation with two dear intimates (be careful you didn’t read that as inmates), on “best of” book lists. The topic fire-starter was Project Gutenberg’s compilation of the Best Books Ever Listings. I scanned some of the listings, and while they all featured many prominent titles from around the globe, I grew disheartened, as often I do, by the lack of Caribbean literature presented there. Here’s exactly what I said in the conversation thread:

More lists to love! Ah, I wonder how many books from the Caribbean are on these? I am like a broken record, harping on that, but it’s been much on my mind of late. I shall just have to bolster the tradition of making lists of books from the islands, then! 😉

One of my friends had an exceptional suggestion… that I curate a list of six books from these islands for her summer reading. My other friend, who also lives in a climate where “summer” is less a cultural affectation and more of a sweltering reality, eagerly agreed that she’d be up for a Caribbean Book Challenge in the warm, sultry months.

Since I’ve been whinging to myself about reading more regional work, I decided to try a different tack with this list. I’m recommending three books I’ve already read, and adored, as well as three works I’ve not yet approached. (How does one recommend books one hasn’t yet read, you might ask? I’m recommending them on the strength of expectation I attach to them, based on the promise they show, not necessarily (or at all) on the accolades they’ve won.) My friends are both superlative, sensitive, wise readers, and I’m hoping they will come to this list with even a glimmer of the excitement I feel, in composing it.

Three Titles I’ve Not Yet Read

Is Just a Movie by Earl Lovelace (Trinidad)

One of the illustrious three titles on the OCM Bocas Prize shortlist, and the winner of the prize’s fiction category, Is Just a Movie is Earl Lovelace’s sixth novel. Any Caribbean literature devotee worth her… heh, well, worth her Salt (Lovelace’s fifth novel) will have encountered this prolific prose master’s publications. (Yes, compulsory secondary school readings of The Schoolmaster count, but they don’t make you an enthusiast!) I’ve only read two of Lovelace’s novels so far, and I heartily want to make this my third. In fact, this book was one of twelve Caribbean titles I challenged myself to read last year—thus far, I’ve read only three, proving that I’m addicted to making reading challenge lists, but that I need to work on that pesky follow-through. I’ve had the pleasure of hearing the author read from this book before its publication, and I was mesmerized… as was everyone present in the audience that day, if appearances were anything to go by. I look forward to encountering that scene again as I read, and smiling at the memories it evokes. The OCM Bocas judges described Is Just a Movie as “a tapestry of island history . . . steeped in place and full of beautifully realised characters.” I’m eager to explore it!

♦♦♦

The Book of Night Women by Marlon James (Jamaica)

Superficially, a cover and title like these cannot help but catch the eye. James’ second novel caught mine when I first saw it, about two years ago, browsing through the shelves at Paper Based bookstore, one of the best repositories for regional lit. on this island. Kaiama L. Glover, in her review of the novel at The New York Times Sunday Book Review, likened the author’s writing to the work of Toni Morrison and Alice Walker—hefty endorsements, both. As Baker summarizes it, the plot of The Book of Night Women “takes us back to the cruel world of a Jamaican sugar plantation at the turn of the 19th century.” I’m extremely excited to see what James brings to the table of this old, sad discussion, which holds the potential for emotional liberation through harrowing catharsis in its very telling. This particular book has also been much on my mind since my book blogging colleague Amy reviewed it last year, as part of The Real Help reading initiative she co-founded.

♦♦♦

The Ghost of Memory by Wilson Harris (Guyana)

There are writers from these islands whose names I feel I’ve known all my life, whose books have lined the shelves of libraries close to my heart. The writers I’m thinking of specifically are those with whose works I feel I should be more familiar, because I want to be more familiar with them. Their names are, among others: Edgar Mittelholzer; Anthony Winkler; Jamaica Kincaid; Erna Brodber; Michael Anthony; George Lamming… and Wilson Harris is on that list, too. I am personally involved in an ongoing relationship with his mesmerizing, ensorcelling first novel The Palace of the Peacock. The thought of being unmoved by that particular literary journey is terrifying to me—you know, of being someone who “just didn’t get it.” This isn’t to say I hold a grudge against strictly linear readers (though I wonder how much fun they’re having), but suffice it to say that The Ghost of Memory would probably irritate, rather than enchant them. Stephen Howe’s review in The Independent informs me that this, Harris’ twenty-fifth novel, will also be his last. I read his first many years ago; I’ll read his last this year, and spend the rest of my life filling in the spaces of the other twenty-three.

Three Titles I’ve Read

Cereus Blooms at Night by Shani Mootoo (Trinidad)

This is Shani Mootoo’s first novel, and it remains my favourite work of hers. Nothing I’ve read by her hand in the past several years has come close to matching my emotional response to this seductive, sorrowing tale, set on the fictitious island of Lantanacamara, narrated by a gay male nurse, Tyler, as he grows close to his taciturn patient of many secrets, Mala Ramchandin. I don’t want to suggest that Mootoo’s subsequent novels and short fiction pieces (I’ve not yet had the pleasure of reading her poetry collection, The Predicament of Or) have taken a nosedive in quality—far from it. In fact, the unfairness is stacked on my end, since I’ve approached every Mootoo publication hunting down a similar sense of lush magic, of the beautiful urgency wherein lyrical language dances with an unforgettable story. As I remarked to one of the readers for whom I’m making this list, one of the primary reasons I need to reread Cereus Blooms at Night is to gauge how much of my adoration is based in nostalgia. Even if it turns out to be the lion’s share, I cannot think I would love it any less.

♦♦♦

Fruit of the Lemon by Andrea Levy (Jamaica)

To put it simply, this is one of the better Caribbean reads I’ve encountered about finding yourself—about the realization that that process is rarely ever simple, that it comes studded with difficulties and detours one can’t possibly foresee. We might think we’ve got a decent benchmark on how far back the long arm of our history goes, but Levy’s protagonist in Fruit of the Lemon, Faith, learns that you can’t ever truly know until you take the journey. This was one of the three Caribbean titles from last year’s challenge that I did read, and I reviewed it here. Summoning this title to this list reminds me, too, of how much I want to read Small Island, the author’s penultimate novel to date, and one of the books I received in last year’s Yuletide Book Gifting.

♦♦♦

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (Dominica)

There are some books in life about which you will find it impossible to be impartial. When someone asks you how you feel about them, you will hear the word “Everything” fall out of your mouth, and you will, perhaps, be a little bit irritated when people ask you to elucidate. Everyone’s got an Everything book… and Wide Sargasso Sea is mine. In fact, it’s one of only two titles I am extremely reluctant to review on Novel Niche, because I think my thoughts would less resemble coherent reviews than they would desperate love letters scented with my fangirlish glee. I could never make a “reading the Caribbean” list without including this book. It is one of the first titles I read that sought to interrogate and respond to colonial perceptions of island identity. It’s immeasurably poetic while being rapier-sharp in its economy. It’s brutal, bold, visionary, shockingly sad and… well, you know. It’s everything.

Some post-listmaking musings:

♣ Picking six novels wasn’t intentional at first, but I decided to stick with it, so I’ll be making separate lists for my Caribbean picks in short fiction, poetry and non-fiction, too.

♣ It wasn’t intentional, either, that the three unread books are by male authors, and the three read ones are by women. Getting into my thoughts on gender roles in writing would take several posts, but in short, I try not to be reductive on either/in any spectrum of the equation.

♣ Most, if not all, of the writers I’ve referenced here have their points of identification and origin in lands additional to the ones I’ve listed. I have offered in brackets alongside their names, the islands with which they are chiefly aligned, with which they chiefly align themselves by birth, residence, inclination, and any and all such markers of prominence. (Now I want to do a completely separate blog post on the (inter)national naming of writers, of how they carve out their geographical footholds… *files away that thought dutifully*)

♣ If anyone else has got an Everything book they’d like to share, please do! I love knowing about which books fellow readers love (and hate) best.

♣ Do you plan on adding any or all of these six novels to your reading queue? It would be fantastic to hear how you get along with them!

 “The island had given me the world as a writer, had given me the themes that in the second half of the twentieth century had become important.”
— V.S. Naipaul

36 thoughts on “Novel Niche Recommends: Six Caribbean Novels

  1. A wonderful list. Have you read Olive Senior? I think you would love her. Jamaican writing seems to have a different edge, a unique sensibility that comes through in the work. Thank you for curating a Caribbean list. You’ve started a conversation that can platform so many other discussions. Love your blog by the way. 🙂

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    1. Thank you, Sharon; I’m thrilled that you’ve stopped by, and that you find the list (the first of many I’m planning) to be encouraging. I studied Olive Senior at university, but I don’t think I gave her work the proper reading it deserves. I’m most eager to read Dancing Lessons. Re: your observation on Jamaican lit’s nuances, have you read any Kei Miller? I’ve heard fascinating things about his poems.

      Oh, I’m really looking forward to hearing your work at the New Talent Showcase for this year’s Bocas! Congratulations!

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  2. Illuminalmah

    One of my acquaintances was reading The Book of Night Women and heartily recommended it! The title alone is swoon-worthy. I added it to my reading list.

    I’m also adding Cereus Blooms at Night and Wide Sargasso Sea.

    A request for the DJ: I’d love for you to talk about reading and gender…and the geographical footholding of writers associated with the Caribbean.

    Oh, and my Everything novel is Toni Morrison’s Beloved, with Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Are Watching God a close nudging second. I also have Everything memoirs and Everything collections-of-essays….:)

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    1. M.

      Their Eyes Were Watching God! I am with you there. Oh Yes. Such a beautiful book. I’ve got a book about the life of ZNH sitting on my shelf for the right moment to read it…maybe it will be soon.

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      1. A book about the life of ZNH! *wants*

        I got a book about the life and times of Djuna Barnes, recently, for an utter *steal* of a price… more on that in a post soon to come, though!

        Also, knowing that the *both* of you adore Their Eyes Were Watching God is the absolute best recommendation I could ever have. Such impeccable, sensitively modulated taste, you two. Mmm.

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    2. The DJ grins in acknowledgement, dear Illuminalmah…I’ll be lining up that particular playlist before too long, I wager. I love the precise way you’ve put it, too! Sweet, succint tagline… I might just quote it when I’m composing that post. 😉

      I would looove to talk about your Everything memoirs and essay-collections! Loove! I also love knowing your Everything novels. I know I will read them when I am most moved, compelled and driven to do so, and that it will be the Right Time… and if I don’t know that for certain, I trust in it. Faith that’s necessary where cold, hard science just doesn’t comfort…sense?

      I greatly and eagerly look forward to your thoughts and musings on the titles that have caught your eye here, darling.

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  3. When you do your poetry list, can I recommend some great poets?

    I’d check out:

    Kwame Dawes (goes without saying, really)
    Shara McCallum
    Christian Campbell (won the Aldeburgh Prize, shortlisted for Forward Prize)
    Ishion Hutchinson
    Una Marson (fantastic activist and poet, often overlooked)
    Dorothea Smartt
    Loretta Collins Klobah (OCM Bocas 2012 Poetry Prize winner)
    Kendel Hippolyte (the Caribbean Ginsberg)

    If you will consider anthologies, you might try Caribbean Erotic (ed. by Opal Palmer Adisa & Donna Aza Weir-Soley).

    Anyone else have any suggestions?

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    1. Illuminalmah

      As far as poets go, I’ve enjoyed Linton Kwesi Johnson. I’ve enjoyed M. NourbeSe Philip, too, but mostly for her creative non-fiction (which has her poetry threaded through it).

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      1. Thanks for those brilliant suggestions, Illuminalmah… Paul Keens-Douglas is also leaping to mind. I love how you’ve pointed out that the poetic is so often threaded through a writer’s not-strictly-poem-formed creations.

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    2. Adam, thank you for the brilliant recommendations! Kendel Hippolyte will be at this year’s Bocas Lit Fest (he’s one of the poetry judges), and I am supremely excited to hear him read from his work. I’ve heard Ishion Hutchinson read his work, and was captivated by the dense mastery of his verses. The one poet you recommended whose work I’ve not yet encountered is Una Marson, and I will definitely change that.

      I’ve no doubt that many of the collections of these poets are sold by Peepal Tree, but I’ll have a look-through of the site again soon, to confirm.

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  4. M.

    I feel like I am at a place in my life where I don’t know what my Everything Novel is, anymore. Perhaps I have lived and read long enough that I can no longer have just one. Or I am starting to realize that Everything Novels, like any other passion, come and go in waves–or if they remain just as strong, just as deep, they are never singular, monogamous loves…maybe I am just a polyamorous bibliophile. I have a book harem all my own….

    A post about our Everything Novels from different phases of our lives would be fascinating, no?

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    1. This sharing of yours, M, has been much on my mind since I read it some days ago… I proclaim Wide Sargasso Sea as my Everything Novel, and truly, it is. It’s just as true that I do have other Everything books… Possession by A.S. Byatt, The Bone People by Keri Hulme, recently, Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente… why, Cereus Blooms at Night, which I’ve talked about here, is a definite Everything novel in my affections.

      I do feel like the air I breathe is different when I’m reading Wide Sargasso Sea, or even thinking of it… I *do* share myself polyamorously with the novels that know me best… and I want, always, to be open to future written suitors and courtesans. It’s unsettling, honestly… it almost feels like a betrayal to WSS, to think that one day some book will happen by and dethrone her from her rare, bewitched throne. Is that ludicrous and fanciful? Even if it is, I believe you will not think it so. 🙂

      A post about Everything Novels through the ages of a reader and/or writer’s life… oh, that is a glorious proposal. How can I but accept with bookish girl glee! 😀

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  5. What an insightful and well-thought-out list. I remember the Marlon James piquing my interest, but I have such poor follow through with books I want to read.

    Wide Sargasso Sea is a fascinating novel, and as you say, it’s just…everything. For such a short novel, it inspires so much thought.

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    1. Thank you, Picky Girl, for stopping by and commenting 🙂 I’m glad you enjoyed the list. Trust me, I’ve cultivated the habit of writing *everything* down, including copious and detailed notes on future reads. My memory is becoming increasingly sieve-like as I get older.

      Oh, and hurrah for the mutual Wide Sargasso Sea love!! That’s some impeccable taste you’ve got there, girl. Just sayin’. 😉

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  6. buriedinprint

    What’s more fun than reading booklists? Perhaps making them. I’ve never read anything by Earl Lovelace, but I’d like to. I have the Marlon James in mind, and have added the Wilson Harris (and shall make sure I’m in the right reading mood) to my list. Andrea Levy is one of my MustReadEverything authors, but I haven’t read this one of hers yet. And Cereus is an AllTimeFavourite, which I’m thinking of re-reading; I’ve started Shani Mootoo’s other novels but set them aside again because, like you, I just wanted “another CBAN”, but maybe I should give the others another try before re-visiting Cereus, as I’m sure they’re quite good, even if not Cereus-all-over-again. Looking forward to later installments on your reading project(s)!

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    1. Dear BIP, I’m relieved to encounter another zealous reader who’s been in the same Cereus Blooms boat as I am! I’ve read He Drown She in the Sea and Out on Main Street, and they were both well-crafted, commendable works, but… no satisfactory thrill, no frissons of delight and immediate identification. In a way, I’m almost hesitant to return to CBAN, because a tiny, hard-nosed part of me wonders, “What if I got it wrong, all those years ago, at 15 or 16?” (I really don’t think I did, though.)

      Do you have a favourite Andrea Levy so far? I’m eagerly looking forward to reading Small Island and her latest, The Long Song. Ideally, I’d like to round out 2012 having read all five of her books. Ah, the lofty aspirations of the hopelessly book-addled! I hope there’s never a cure for chronic word-enchantment (and if there is, I will staunchly refuse it over and over!)

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      1. buriedinprint

        I’m fond of The Long Song because I’m partial to stories told by aging women looking back on their lives, but I know other readers did not respond to her voice as immediately and persistently as I did. Yes, wouldn’t it be lovely to read them all in a burst? (And, yes, I have the same worry about Cereus, but I must try it anyway, because I want to keep pressing it on reading friends and feel justified in doing so: heheh.)

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    1. Thank you, Ria! I haven’t read any of her books yet, but I am almost sure that I’ll be in awe when I do. I think I might begin with Create Dangerously, the non-fiction work that won the corresponding category at last year’s OCM Bocas Lit Fest.

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      1. buriedinprint

        I haven’t read any of her novels yet, either, but Create Dangerously will, I think, become a fixture on your shelves. I hope you thrill to it.

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  7. I haven’t read any of them, but I’m certainly adding them all to my own list of books I’d like to read. It fits well with my hopefully reading more non-European and North-American lit thing that I want to give a try. Wide Sargasso Sea is on my list for YOFC already 🙂

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    1. Hurrah! I love the idea of reading outside of one’s previously accepted borders; perhaps that’s similar to what you’re aiming to do in your approach to more non-European, non-North-American titles? Yes, I’m very eager to your forthcoming thoughts on Wide Sargasso Sea; I will definitely take part in that discussion!

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      1. That is certainly (part of) the idea. It has to do with me being aware of wanting to cross boundaries, but not actually doing enough to actually read outside of the geographical boundaries. So yes, I’m trying to push myself to read other literature 🙂

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  8. Pingback: Reading Ruminations: January to March 2012 « Novel Niche: A Place for Books

  9. Pingback: The three books of my 26th birthday. « Novel Niche: A Place for Books

    1. Hi Sash, thanks for stopping by! When you say “top reviewed WI novels”, do you mean those that have generated the most feedback over time, or those that have garnered the best results? Either way, unfortunately, I haven’t found an undisputed list for that, though many prolific readers do offer their suggestions. Geoffrey Philp’s 2007 list of 10 top Caribbean novels might be useful to you (the comments also have good suggestions, on that link), and the thread on this post itself has stirred up mentions of novels I didn’t initially include in the writeup. Also, are you just focusing on Caribbean novels, or are you also interested in short fiction and poetry collections, as well as plays, etc?

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  10. Bishnodat Persaud

    I noticed your interesting reviews of Lakshmi Persaud’s Daughters of Empire which appeared in several places including the Guardian and Caribbean Beat. In the latter it was your first choice of books reviewed in that Issue. It would be interesting to see reviews by you at some time of one or two or her previous novels eg Sastra and For the Love of my Name, the latter being a political novel fictionalising authoritarianism in a Caribbean country.

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