A review by Sarah Gilmartin for the Irish Times. Our thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this review to our attention.
“Suh yuh t’ink if yuh sweet-talk or blackmail me, ah g’wan jus’ agree fi yuh flimsy offer? Me is not no fool, boss lady.”
In a debut novel teeming with abused and misused female narrators, the Jamaican author Nicole Dennis-Benn gives them back a degree of power with her luminous dialogue. Freeing her characters from inherited literary traditions, and from the language of the rich tourists who pay them for sex, Benn excels at recording the patois of the islanders.
It is the outstanding attribute in a novel that at times strains its realist narratives by veering into melodrama. Here Comes the Sun has more antiheroes and villainous subplots than a Shakespearean tragedy. It charts a shocking history of violence done to women over generations, the repercussions filtering down from mothers to daughters, ruining families and eroding female solidarity in the wider community.
In the poverty-stricken Jamaican neighbourhood of River Bank Delores and her two daughters, Margot and Thandi, live in a shack of simmering rage and resentment. Margot, the beautiful and light-skinned elder daughter, has worked for years in a fancy resort in Montego Bay, on call for clients day and night. The book’s chief narrator, Margot is refreshingly honest in her use of sex to advance her position in life, although there are hints of self-delusion as she professes that it’s all to send her sister to college.
Studying for her CXC, the Jamaican equivalent of the Leaving Cert, Thandi is the book’s most sympathetic character. Although she longs to be an artist, her mother and sister force her towards medicine. Dennis-Benn vividly depicts the insidious martyrdom that the older women wield over Thandi and her dreams. Delores is the least sympathetic of the women, a merciless mercenary who views everything in monetary terms. The mystery of why Margot hates her mother drives much of the narrative, with the unhappy pasts of all three women unfolding in sorrowful tales of abuse, silence and marginalisation.
The way that women revisit these abuses on their own gender is a major preoccupation. Trapped in a patriarchal and highly conservative society, where lesbians are “no different from witches warranting public execution”, women survive by handing down the misery. From the way Margot treats the younger escorts in her care to the griping between Delores and her fellow street sellers, to the scornful pupils in Thandi’s private school, women consistently turn on each other in order to get ahead. Their worth is more often than not tied to sex. As Delores puts it to Thandi, “Who yuh know really love a black girl for more than what’s between her legs?”
Her twisted view of the world has infected her daughters. Margot is a multifaceted character, refreshingly honest but vicious in her readiness to sacrifice others, even those she professes to love. Her chilling words to Thandi towards the end of the novel, “Mek me proud”, underline the complexities of their world. For Margot sex is power, the only currency she has ever known.
Dennis-Benn sheds light on Jamaica’s two-tier system, the poverty versus the paradise, as locals live in hovels while developers plough up the landscape for five-star resorts: “Bulldozers appear overnight. They stand in place like resting mammoths, their blades like curved tusks.”
Skin colour is central to the novel and the social ranking of its characters. Hating her dark colour, Thandi goes for bleaching appointments to Miss Ruby, whose “salmon coloured skin is delicate with the texture of scalded milk”. Local women with lighter skin earn coveted roles of mistresses – even wives if light enough. The novel is set in 1994, but life on the island feels in many ways a century older.
In her short chapters and interlinked narratives, Dennis-Benn captures the rhythms of Jamaican culture, although the connections between the plots and characters have a fictitious feel. A subplot about the public shaming of a former beauty queen is ramped up to the point of histrionic. The emotional truths are to be found less in the drama and more in the interior monologues of the characters.
Born and raised in Kingston, Dennis-Benn is a graduate of Cornell University and has received fellowships from Hedgebrook, MacDowell and Lambda. She lives with her wife in New York and teaches writing. Issues of gender, class, race and, particularly, sexuality, as Margot develops a relationship with a local woman, Verdene, pulse through the novel. The locals’ horrific attitude to lesbianism is vividly rendered as Verdene endures dead dogs on her lawn and death threats written in blood. “For what can women who refuse the love of men expect?”
The answer is at best exile, at worst death. For all its white sands and blue skies and sparkling green oceans, this is no island paradise for women.