Montague Kobbe writes that Antiguan writer Joanne Hillhouse’s debut novel Oh Gad! closely maps the travails of a young protagonist caught in the middle of an identity crisis, likening it to a bildungsroman while stressing that it is not. The critic seems to suggest that the act of scrutinizing family and identity (“the most characteristic tropes of Caribbean literature”) is not present in the bildungsroman “in the European tradition.” Ultimately, Kobbe blames the novel’s “failure” to the “intimate voice” that makes it extremely difficult to separate the character from the narrator (from the author). Time to read the novel and see for ourselves!
Nikki Baltimore is in her thirties, but despite the early promise of what we can only assume was a sophisticated education she finds herself engaged in a dead-end job in a suspect NGO in Harlem, while at the same time caught in a stable relationship with a suave young executive, which is as unfulfilling as it is unbalanced. This is the context from which a call shakes her into action, to pluck her out of her own world and place her back in the midst of her family’s roots, which for so long have seemed distant and unconnected to her. Hillhouse follows the ups and downs of a quest that is haphazard in the best of cases—and irritatingly inconstant at worst—as Nikki rushes a visit to her native Antigua, where her mother has passed away. The problem is that the protagonist never had a relationship with her mother to speak of in the first place, since her father, a cold and respected American academic, decided to rescue her from the hopeless environment of her mother’s rural island village as a young child to introduce her to the whole spectrum of opportunities afforded by the American dream.
As it turns out, Nikki’s loose ties to Antigua prove firmer than her commitment to her fledgling (or flailing) career in New York, as she embarks on a journey that involves self-discovery, even if it is as a collateral result. In the absence of anything meaningful to hold on to in New York, a city the narrator tells us never felt like “home” to Nikki, she seizes the chance to escape what has become an increasingly oppressive relationship and opts to explore her own past and her heritage in the process. But as the protagonist soon discovers, lost time cannot be made up, and belonging is a sense that cannot be purchased, obtained or even earned: belonging—and this is one of the few points the novel is successful in delivering consistently from the start—needs to be extended by others, bestowed, as it were, on us by those to whom you belong. Nikki, a stranger in New York, finds herself on the far end of the periphery of society in Antigua, where she is mistrusted and used as a dubious outsider.
Initially, however, things go well for Nikki in Antigua as she gets involved in an affair with an influential local politician who, quite literally, invents a government role for her to fulfill while she acts as his sexual toy. But while she has a good time, her alienation from the society she has come to discover becomes visible in the perception and the behavior of her sister, with whom she has always had an acrimonious relationship, toward her. Audrey, Nikki’s older sister, is brutal and unforgiving but in due course it becomes obvious that she is just more honest with the protagonist than the rest of the people around her—an honesty that perhaps can be read as her very own goodwill gesture toward someone she doesn’t like, particularly, but to whom she is bound by the thick fabric of blood. Nikki’s inevitable fall from grace forces her to weave new relations outside her family nucleus in the Antiguan social construct. It also lands her squarely in the middle of a moral conundrum linked to the largest economic development in the island, which provides the backbone to the novel’s plot as Nikki works her way out of her own confusion and into the society where she ultimately finds her place.
Oh Gad! is not so much a novel of coming-of-age—a bildungsroman in the European tradition—as it is a personal scrutiny perfectly in tune with the most characteristic tropes of Caribbean literature: family and identity. Despite the vast tradition of works that stand alongside Hillhouse’s in the exploration of these themes, she is on occasion capable of delivering a personal note on a subject that is both tremendously familiar and equally delicate. Unfortunately, however, those occasions are significantly outnumbered by the recurrence of less successful episodes. In terms of the story, Hillhouse’s tale is so dramatically punctuated by tragedy that ultimately it seems like everything becomes an exception: the death of Nikki’s mother acts as a suitable catalyst for the plot to unravel, but piled on that death there is a car accident, another fatality, a miscarriage, an attempted suicide, an instance of sexual abuse, and so on and so forth, all of which taint Oh Gad! with a purple hue that is difficult to shed as readers delve deeper into the book. [. . .]
[Review originally published by “The Weekender” supplement of Sint Maarten’s The Daily Herald, 8 June 2013.]
Photo of Joanne Hillhouse from http://www.acwws.org/