Published in 2007 by Akashic Books.
I’ve seen several volumes of Dawes’ poetry collections lining local bookstore shelves, but reading She’s Gone, a Caribbean mystic-meets-American urbane love story, is the first true interaction I’ve had with his work.
One sizzling Southern Carolina night, the paths of Kofi, a Jamaican roots reggae man, and Keisha, an American sex and gender researcher, intersect. This book is about how they come to each other, come for each other, how they live together, as well as how they manage (or fail to do so) apart.
I confess, the novel irritated me profoundly at intervals, particularly in both the portrayal of Keisha’s character, as well as the stiflingly familiar revisited relationship rubrics for two passionate souls. All the elements of a rollicking Tyler Perry screenplay/film seem firmly established:
♣ the enigmatic, sexily-accented black man who is both difficult to love and impossible to quit;
♣ this man’s smouldering, vicious ex-woman, who represents almost everything that is both dangerous and compelling about his past, his backstory before he meets…
♣ the intelligent and beautiful black woman who struggles with loving love a little too much (and has the tempestuous, abusive ex-boyfriend, pacing and promising in the background, to prove it);
♣ this woman’s smarter, more successful, infinitely lonelier, less loved cousin, who cannot help but fall for the enigmatic and sexily-accented man, knowing full well that there will be no storybook ending for her;
♣ the rest of our female protagonist’s extended family, (including a pistol-waving, housedress-wearing matriarch) who are full of opinions, comments and semi-relevant anecdotes – and a feast of the best Southern home cooking;
♣ this woman’s sassy, fierce, feisty best friend/boss combo, who’s there for her when she needs her the most, but is not there at least once when it counts the most – you know, so our female protagonist can dig deep and find her own hidden fortitude;
♣ the creation of a baby, who helps make things almost magically good, life-affirming, and tender – the way that babies do.
I will own to the fact that it is not necessarily the existence of these tropes within this work that bothers me, so much as the persistence of many of these constructs in the world, in each of our separate, interwoven societies. At one point, while reading, I felt like murmuring to myself, “Mm. Yes. We get the point. Women love men who use them bad and use them up.” Still, if some of the character assessments that abound in the novel seem and feel tired, well… perhaps that’s not lazy, at all. Perhaps that’s just people as they are. I cannot declare Dawes’ story to be lazy, even if it is one I would avoid, strenuously, if it came at me in the form of a film adaptation. It simply means that Dawes is good—maybe even brilliant—at capturing that which exists around him, in people, in the ways they/we hurt and honour each other.
For all the groanworthy excerpts that centre on Keisha and Kofi’s amorous travails, the novel contains some heft, and more weight than is initially apparent. Dawes is at his best when he inhabits the thought-space of Kofi: an artist in exile, even in his lush island mountains, a man driven to dreams and despair, and achingly good music. His words, the way he articulates everyday frustrations, observations, fears—they resound from the page, skipping, trilling off the tongue in that sweet and unmistakable Jamaican dialect. (Dawes is a master of capturing the voices of his characters; no utterances seem contrived or out of place.)
Of all the lovers and losers we encounter in She’s Gone, Kofi feels the best-drawn, the most convincingly rendered. Is this because he is closest to home? Whatever the reason, he is a pleasure to read. His letters and e-mails to Keisha, both when he is courting her and when he is estranged from her, are organic, vital scripture: better and more beautiful, indeed, than the man himself. Isn’t that we want from our correspondence, anyway? Isn’t that at the heart of any extraordinary missive passed between two people? The desire to render yourself a little larger than the life you inhabit, for the one whom you which to ensorcell… this is what Kofi’s letters do.This is what most of us wish we could do when we write, no?
She’s Gone is not, in the final estimation, a masterpiece. I was as underwhelmed as much as I was moved, and the overall effect is not a consistent one of either delight or dismay. What Dawes crafts right, he crafts right, though: there is beauty in his depiction of landscape; there is palpable lyricism in the tones and timbres of every voice he makes speak. There is reverence, accuracy and respect in his treatment of island and Southern-U.S. state living. Is there fault to be ascribed, then, if the novel simply does not resonate with me as it might do with another? No, I daresay, there is none.
Is it an audacious thought, to have had the first taste of a writer, and then have thought—there is more to him, than this? There are better, bolder, richer lines, sweeter worlds waiting to be discovered. After I finished reading She’s Gone, I unearthed some of Dawes’ poems, and I knew, as I had felt instinctively, that I was right.