Andre Bagoo Reviews Oonya Kempadoo’s “All Decent Animals”

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Here are excerpts of writer Andre Bagoo’s review of Oonya Kempadoo recent novel All Decent Animals. The review was published in Trinidad and Tobago’s Newsday (24 March 2014). He introduces the novel thus: “Novelist Oonya Kempadoo was born in England to Guyanese parents, lived in Europe then came to the Caribbean where she has lived in several countries, including Trinidad and Tobago, and now currently resides at St George’s, the capital of Grenada. The subject matter of All Decent Animals, her third novel, is arguably Trinidad and Tobago itself.”

The story follows Ata who comes to Trinidad and Tobago to live. Kempadoo never tells us where Ata is from, and this is a deliberate touch. She seeks to emphasise the fluid possibilities of being from nowhere yet everywhere. Early in the novel, the narrator describes how nationhood is subsumed in an idea of the individual: “Growing up hearing about Caricom ideals and global citizenship, Ata felt “Caribbean”, not Dominican, not Guyanese, not Trinidadian – a true no-nation.”

It is disclosed that Ata has an “in-between feeling, neither one nor the other” and this, “moved her from island to island, from Europe to the Caribbean, without obligation to either. A nonbelonger. Unrooted in place and race and in herself. Each island, each time, as she saw the secrets of the land and the lying creases of the culture, she found out something about herself.”

[. . .] Kempadoo manages to touch upon every major issue facing contemporary Trinidad and Tobago society. She deals with crime and its infringement upon everyday liberty; she touches upon politics (the Church at the Heights of Guanapo makes an appearance – even if relocated to Guapo, Point Fortin); she raises philosophical questions about the arts; she seeks to raise the spectre of history; euthanasia arises; as does sexual politics and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Not even the United Nations and its peculiar brand of bureaucracy escapes the author’s scrutiny.

The prose is competent and at times demonstrates an outstanding talent for observation. At a crucial point, the sea surf is memorably described: “The wind is quiet, making the waves downright loud. Pierre looks at them. White teeth appearing and disappearing.” For one character, no recording of steel-pan music can ever capture its true beauty: “The tinny version of the steel orchestra screeches along with them till Ata feels she’s riding inside an incessant cicada. There is no way of recording pan on this scale, and nothing does it justice.”

[. . .] Another strong quality of the book is how the main events all seem to happen off-stage. Just as we feel Ata is perpetually on the verge of a new discovery, so too does the book follow a somewhat oblique and slippery trajectory.

[. . .] A surprise was how, for all the novel’s delving into real, everyday Trinidad and Tobago issues, it ends up becoming pleasurably surreal. Near the end, the narrative disintegrates, dream-like, into a kind of meta-novel, written by Ata herself. Ata, the woman from nowhere, finds a home in language.

For full review, see http://www.newsday.co.tt/features/0,192356.html

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