Robert Edison Sandiford: Greek myth visits Barbados


Strange creatures populate award-winning Sandiford’s first novel, And Sometimes They Fly, George Elliot Clarke writes in this review for Canada’s Chronicle Herald.

Robert Edison Sandiford is a rare Canadian writer, for he writes in self-chosen exile, as an expatriate journalist in Barbados, the homeland of his parents.

An African-Canadian writer, Sandiford was born in Quebec and raised in a Montreal suburb. He is, then, a child of Pierre Trudeau — bilingual, multicultural, intellectual, liberal.

Indeed, when Sandiford isn’t writing journalism or fiction, he keeps his ink frothy by penning naughty scripts for adult-only cartoon strips, as well as short stories exploring the psychology of intimacy.

Twice a recipient of Barbados’s highest literary honour, the Governor General’s Award for Excellence in the Literary Arts, Sandiford is a gifted writer, and so he sets himself the task, in his first novel, of drafting a tale that unleashes creatures from Caribbean folklore like destructive Greek gods to terrorize 21st-century Barbadians (Bajans).

That verb, “terrorize,” is essential to Sandiford’s debut novel, And Sometimes They Fly (DC Books, $19), for it begins with a scene of Bajans in a Bridgetown bar, watching the Sept. 11, 2001, aerial terror attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., unfold on a local TV station accepting a feed from the United States.

Not only does this spectacular violence devastate two American cities and stun the world, it also brings to life Caribbean terrors (not mere terrorists), such as baccous and soucouyan and duppies, supernatural beings that wrought unholy, ungodly destruction.

Indeed, in Sandiford’s Caribbean mythology, 9-11 is a “Cataclysm” that opens a portal for demonic beings to invade even such a sugarcane-green and rum-peaceful isle as Barbados.

Fans of African-Canadian novelists Nalo Hopkinson, David Chariandy and Andre Alexis, in particular, will see Sandiford follow in their footsteps by applying to Canadian and Barbadian settings the same folkloric beings that show up in fiction by this trio of authors.

But there’s also a connection here between Sandiford’s crafting of superbly thoughtful and playful erotica and his imaginative evocation of a world of devilish thingamajigs and their heroic opponents.

Essentially, the novel — like the shorter fiction — explores passions and the passions that violate scruples, morals and boundaries.

And Sometimes They Fly can also be thought a strange mashup of Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon (1976) and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1960). In Morrison’s tale, some African-Americans possess the ability to fly; in Achebe’s tale, taboos and gremlins, indicative of cancerous fears and passions, corrupt the state.

Luckily, in Sandiford’s tale, a trio of Elect (angelic) beings, guided by an Elder, intervene to save Barbados and, by extension, the world.

David can fly, even to the moon (though he does find space “chilly;”) Marsha is super strong (a Bajan bionic woman) and Franck has no excuse for not paying his bills on time, for he is, well, super fast.

But even if Superman, Wonder Woman and the Flash (so to speak) want to ward off the monster invasion, they are limited by the Elders: Milton, who is Miltonic, and Mackie, who is Machiavellian.

Three Witches, reminiscent of Macbeth’s fortunetellers, also impede the would-be do-gooders.

I’ve reviewed Sandiford before, and I find his past successes repeated in And Sometimes They Fly. A cross between Joe Conrad and V.S. Naipaul, Sandiford is breathtakingly clear in his prose, and this commitment to realism serves him well in writing a story that could easily be a Twilight Zone episode:

“And a boy and a girl, fresh into their teens, kissed for the first time in the sea.”

“Hospitals in the Caribbean, like hospitals in the movies, all looked the same as dingy as their Hollywood counterparts were scoured; as open-air as those onscreen were shut-off.”

Sandiford also turns in fine aphorisms:

“If you don’t have a plan then the only plan you have is to fail.”

And Sometimes They Fly is an adventure tale, a sort of Caribbean novelization of The Odyssey.

If you’ve not read Sandiford before, this novel is a good place to start.

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