A review by Simon Lee for Trinidad’s Guardian.
With his recent novel The Repenters, Kevin Jared Hosein has fulfilled some of the promise which won him the Commonwealth Short Story Prize in 2015.
He has also firmly positioned himself in the rapidly expanding cohort of Caribbean postmodern writers who have overturned metropolitan expectations of regional literature: abandoning the exotic for the grotesque; exchanging the indiscreet charms of the bourgeoisie or lush landscapes, with the grit of the mean streets of survival in an unhinged, dystopic postcolonial society.
Yet for all its modernity this distinctively Caribbean bildungsroman recalls the “barrack literature” of the 1930s, with its focus on the urban underclass, the main difference being the entirely authentic Creole voice from below, of the protagonist and narrator Jordan Sant: “It ain’t have no cut to heal if the knife never break the skin.”
Despite Jordan’s protestations (“Never really care for books before”) the shadow of the children’s classic The Little Prince and to a lesser degree those of Lord of the Flies and Crime and Punishment is discernible throughout the narrative of an orphan’s struggle to survive institutional life and its aftermath, following the horrific murder of his parents.
What distinguishes Repenters from other narratives of childhood trauma and abuse, is its unusual or unlikely framing in Christian faith, which recalls Pilgrim’s Progress. The three sections of the novel (Saints, Sinners, Repenters) can be read as an unholy triptych, the torments of an innocent dropped in a swamp of abuse, whose only apparent salvation lies on the roads of sin.
But from the beginning of “the long road with no turning” Jordan has faith, heavily seasoned with street sense: “Give God a chance with your soul and you will be okay…All bad things come to an end, but not without casualties. God don’t owe you anything beyond that point. The ones who survive are the people who God have His eye on. And I could tell you one surefire thing. Since the clock ticking…God has watched over me.” If Milarepa, patron saint of Buddhist Tibet was a murderer before his conversion and eventual canonisation, why shouldn’t Jordan Sant also be redeemed?
While the debate/controversy over what defines Caribbean writing and writers meanders on, Repenters sidesteps the local for the universal.
There is little reference to landscape; we move from the bare environment of St Asteria Orphanage to the “galvanise wasteland” of Port-of-Spain’s Sea Lots shanty town and back to St Asteria.
Trinidad’s national festival, Carnival, gets short shrift from dazed onlooker Jordan: “Cloth, grass and beads, shimmerin under the blazin afternoon sun, spread like the wings of a deformed bird of paradise. Everything movin at the pace of dying earthworms…what I see mean nothing to me.”
Hosein and his narrator Jordan’s focus is internalised, and as readers we are in Jordan’s troubled head for the most part.
In the Saints section, like Jordan we observe the inequity of power relations between vulnerable children and their supposed guardians; their sexual exploitation and learned depravity; the cruelty the weak inflict on those who are even weaker; the emotional wilderness they involuntarily inhabit.
In the Sinners section, Hosein introduces us to the Tarrantinoesque inferno of drugs, brutal sex and violence which, like in Marlon James’s Seven Killings, is the contemporary Caribbean setting which threatens to displace the more innocuous or exotic versions of beach, sea and rainforest. Jordan survives the unrelenting round of robbery, murder and rape, all of which he is deeply implicated in, to return to St Asteria in the final Repenters section, because there’s nowhere else to go. After the harrowing reading of Sinners, (which requires a strong stomach) Repenters is inevitably anti-climactic and the closure with Jordan reuniting with orphanage friend Ti-Marie a little too neat.
Yet in the absence of blood family there is a kind of solace when these two orphans commit to caring for each other and another generation of those left parentless.
For prodigal Jordan there is also redemption: “I have my sins, but they is just one side of me…God is watching over me, and I must do my best to pull these children up from the mire. It isn’t just a task. It is a necessity. It is the way of the world. Somethin to live for…A currency for my tithes, to repay my debts. To heal my wounds.”
While conforming to the conventional bildungsroman conclusion where the protagonist ultimately finds a place in the community, Repenters shakes up the genre through the worldy-wise focus of Jordan, whose voice though it cracks at times, overrides sentimentality, compelling readers to confront the ugliness which is now both a Caribbean and global reality.