Published in 2011 by K. Jared Hosein.
“And then he walk up to me with a fake smile. I know the smile was fake. I am the man to know bout fake smiles. And I am the last to be offended by them.”
Joshua Sant is busy doing God’s work. This is what he’s been led to believe by the eerily charismatic Judah Weir, a foreigner to Trinidad with seemingly fathomless resources and a singular purpose: salvation. Weir is in the business of making sinners repent, no matter how bloodstained or brutal the path that leads towards a plea for forgiveness. He seeks out those with no necessary talents other than the eager capacity for violence, and the dogged mettle requisite for enforcing it. This is where Joshua comes in, finding the pattern of his previously nihilistic yet unremarkable life changed forever by Judah’s imperative. If this new, financially viable lifestyle is a conduit through which Joshua can keep close to Mouse – a woman who proved to be the saving grace of the former’s upbringing – then it is a path he will take without a flicker of hesitation. Even a semblance of intimacy with his cherished Mouse, Joshua decides, is worth far greater crimes than the ones he commits in Judah’s quarantined hilltop facility.
This novel is not for the faint of heart. Hosein acquaints us early on to what happens when we dredge closeted sins from the basement and make them play in the bright daylight. Is there nowhere we won’t go, I wondered, mid-reading, in this vivisection of the human psyche? You will think you have encountered some of the bleakest mappings-out of individual behaviour, (keep an unblinking eye out for the story of Emil Syrový) and then a previously-unseen corridor will shift into focus, holding enough contemplations to shake you out of your complacency. What keeps this from registering as hyperbolic or overwrought is that the lens through which we observe most of this depravity is Joshua himself. A creature of merciless, arbitrary circumstances, Joshua is so inured to violence that he’s able to calmly mull sentiments like, “Fire is really just another kinda knife” without missing a beat.
Joshua Sant is drawn with a meticulous hand, as are all of the writer’s characters. We understand that they have lived before we meet them in print here, that some will continue to live after the story has been concluded, while others will brush up against far more dubious fates. Whether we’re spending time with Joshua and his Blue Bayou CD, Mouse and her suitcase of books, Sister Kitty and her insatiable penchant for people-pleasing, Hosein turns them all to the light of our scrutiny. Major and minor players alike are primed for our illumination, horror and bleak humour. We believe their best intentions as much as we doubt their worst.
Perhaps you get a headache when your straight highway through fiction takes an unexpected detour. If so, you should probably skip The Repenters, which is a stream of consciousness ramble/rant/pleasure-pain-cruise through one man’s patchwork interpretation of his past, present and days yet to come. Joshua’s coherency is often in dispute, and it is in fact his jagged internalizations that share the most of himself. Witness, for instance, how he unfurls, after visiting some stake-related remodelling on an snarling predator:
“… a bowl of grapes appear before me i take one and eat it. i eat the grapes then the grapes eat me. the grapes feed away on my insides and what a lovely symbiosis it is turning out to be
i think bout waking up
i think bout people waking up and praying to god and kneel before their ten dollar calendars with dead jesus on it or putting the milk or flowers or whatever on the lingums outside. scrubbing up leftovers of ash and feelin so grateful for the day
always secretly wished i could wake up and know what it like to be grateful to wake up
and know how grateful i should be feelin for even bein able to feel grateful for wakin up
i have to be drunk yes”
If you think this is spectacularly weird, then truly you’ve seen nothing. I began the novel with a confident blueprint for continuity and procedure, yet I found myself repinning time-space markers, backtracking to check events and the minutiae that defined them. Eventually, I let go, and let the experience happen to me, which I found to be eminently more satisfying, because of the non-linearity. Hosein neither breaks nor bends any rules of storytelling lightly. Indeed, his attitudes towards storytelling define something I vastly enjoyed in the narrative’s premise.
Books have the power to change your life. It hardly seems like a lesson I’d need to stress, but stories don’t always lend themselves to examining this in voluble and plot-related ways, so it’s a treasure to find it reinforced here. The way that Mouse describes the active art of reading to Joshua, during their first meeting, stands out as rather tender testimony in a work where so much is characterized by moral bankruptcy, greed and savagery. She assures him that, yes, books can take you everywhere, and against the proof of a cloistered, grey existence, the boy believes her. The result is a protagonist who contemplates Exupéry’s The Little Prince as a metaphor for ultimate escape, who regards Judah Weir as a live-action Man-Man from Naipaul’s Miguel Street. There may not be immediate solace to be derived in a life informed by literature, not if Joshua’s daily rigours are to be trusted. Still, reading offers the only consolation we can cling to, sometimes — the assurance that other beings in other places have suffered as much, or worse, than we; that all pain and all joy is relative on a vast, written sliding scale.
Can we ever stop paying for what, and whom, we’ve done wrong? Who gets to mitigate our sins, and who decides how our ethical compasses are calibrated? Is there redemption in repentance? The Repenters asks some of the hardest questions that fiction can put to us, and returns a bloodied basket of answers for us to pick from — and yes, the answers make sense in one light, but they cut at your palms in another. This is the work of the grittiest and most uncompromising storytelling, it seems: not merely to hold the mirror up to what we are, but to peer down the rabbit hole of all we might become, given provocation, misery, and a limitless credit card. By turns both chilling and comedic, Hosein’s novel presses us to take heed of whom we ask for forgiveness. They may or may not be listening.
K. Jared Hosein (1986 -…) has been working on his prose and poetry since his early teenage years. In 2009, he penned a poem entitled “The Wait is So, So Long” that would go on to be adapted as a short film that would be featured and win a Gold Key Award at the NY-based Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. He frequently writes to the local newspapers but those pieces are only of political and sociological nature. Although he is currently employed as a Biology and Physics secondary school teacher, he writes fiction frequently to have a significant body of work, to build discipline and to create his own voice and style in the world of West Indian literature.
A free electronic copy of this novel was provided by K. Jared Hosein for review. The opinions expressed in this review are entirely my own, and are not influenced by his generous gift of gratuitous literature.
Author portrait by Portia Subran.