Ten years ago, novelist Elizabeth Nunez moved “The Tempest” to the Caribbean, taking a hard look at the relationship between Caliban and Miranda while exploring what it might tell us about the intersection of race, class and gender — a vital, sometimes overlooked subtext in Shakespeare’s play.
Nunez’s latest novel, “Even in Paradise,” adopts the same approach by adapting “King Lear,” now unfolding on the Caribbean islands of Barbados, Jamaica and Trinidad.
As in Shakespeare’s play, Lear and his three daughters — Peter, Glynis, Rebecca and Corinne Ducksworth — are English. And while the Ducksworths have been in the Caribbean for generations, their white skin and accompanying privilege cast a different hue, given that the Ducksworth fortune was made on the backs of Ducksworth slaves.
As in “Lear,” such historical context is easily overlooked but always matters; more on this momentarily.
But the actual plot in both play and novel turns on family dynamics, as a petulant and spoiled widower divides his kingdom among his daughters, the eldest two of whom loudly profess their love even though it’s the youngest who loves him best.
Here, that kingdom is Peter’s real estate, nestled around a Barbadian cove and capped by a stunning house that seems to float in a sea of blue. Glynis (Goneril) and Rebecca (Regan) want to pave paradise and put up condos anchored by a five-star restaurant within the house. Unfortunately for them, that’s the part of Peter’s holdings reserved for Corinne (Cordelia).
Corinne is as idealistically headstrong and principled as her Shakespearean counterpart; as with the first scene in “Lear,” there’s a set piece in “Paradise” where it costs her dearly, as she angers the father who dotes on her and who she loves by refusing to flatter him with the sort of empty blandishments bestowed by her scheming sisters.
In “Lear,” Cordelia thereafter allies herself with the King of France, who only appears in the first scene of the play. Corinne makes common cause with Émile, a black Trinidadian and aspiring poet who is French on his mother’s side and who narrates the entire novel in the first person.
It’s a strange choice, since this really isn’t Émile’s story, despite a thin subplot involving his relationship with his father — think Gloucester and Edgar — that underscores the story of the Ducksworths. Nunez nevertheless gets her story told through Émile by investing him with preternatural insight regarding others’ motivations and ascribing it to his “poet’s intuition.”
Putting aside whether one believes Émile could ever be this perceptive, the insights Nunez places in his mouth are real. They cover topics ranging from the jealousy the two oldest daughters feel because Corinne is Peter’s pet to the racism afflicting many of these characters — hailing from a region still struggling with the legacy of slavery and colonialism.
“The past to me was also the present,” Émile reflects at one point, as he considers the race-inflected contrast between rich and poor. “It affected our thoughts, our actions.”
Like the best productions of “Lear,” “Paradise” is strongest when channeling one of the play’s great themes: If we turn out backs on the poor within the larger human family, it’s only a matter of time before our nuclear families fall apart.
Even as Émile vividly describes the colorful surface of Caribbean culture — its beautiful women, delicious food, vibrant music and sandy beaches — he continually reminds us of what Lear himself finally sees: Appearances can be deceiving.
Ditto this book. It can feel at times like a light beach read made for a Caribbean vacation. But it also continually journeys inland, looking hard at the “tiny shacks” abutting the Ducksworth mansion, the Jamaican slums near Émile’s university and the significance of shady Trinidadian trees protecting estates “where there were Africans beaten and tortured.”
Hence Nunez’s frequent, deftly inserted lessons involving Caribbean history. As her title suggests, one can never escape that history, even when sipping rum on a hilltop mansion overlooking paradise.
IF YOU GO
Elizabeth Nunez will speak and sign books at 7 p.m. April 27 at Boswell Book Company, 2559 N. Downer Ave.