Veronica Chambers (The New York Times) reviews A Tall History of Sugar (Akashic Books, 2019) by Curdella Forbes.
In her classic memoir, “Black Ice,” Lorene Cary recounts a well-known West Indian fairy tale about a woman who had the power to leave her body at night and fly wherever she wanted to go. Her husband, aware of her supernatural ability, asked a village elder how to stop his wife from stealing her freedom every night, how to remind her that she must never, without permission, leave his side. The elder advised him to rub salt inside her skin when she spirited away. The next morning, before sunrise, Cary writes, “the husband heard the rustling and then a shriek of pain as the wife tried to slip back in.” The woman’s plaintive cries were not directed at her husband but her own body, which had betrayed her. She screamed, “Skin, skin, ya na know me?”
The complex relationship of black people to their own skin — how it has affected freedom, rights, privilege, safety, opportunities and self-worth — has been central to our experience for generations. The first slave ships arrived in America in 1619, as the recent New York Times Magazine project so powerfully recounts. But the first slave ships arrived in Jamaica in 1517, 502 years ago. In her new novel, “A Tall History of Sugar,” the Jamaican writer Curdella Forbes uses skin as a prism to examine color, race, colonialism, heritage and — most important — love.
The hero is Moshe Fisher, who in his infancy was found floating in a basket like Moses, with a skin that defied color and caste. Moshe, Forbes writes, has “pale skin, one sky-blue and one dark-brown eye, his hair long, wavy and bleached blond in front and short, black and pepper-grainy in the back … the child seemed to represent some kind of perverse alchemy that had taken place in the deep earth, between tectonic plates, where he was fashioned. People said the boy just looked like sin. Big sin at work when he was made.”
On the first day of school, he meets Arrienne, an extraordinary beauty with skin as brown as Moshe’s is milky. She will grow to over six feet “in a country of mainly small and average-sized men.” Arrienne is his protector and soul mate, so closely linked to him that she has the magical ability to place “the words in his head, so that they came out at his mouth, in her voice.” Theirs is an epic love story that defies every happily ever after as Arrienne, the narrator, explains “the way we belonged to each other and the way we kept missing and missing and missing each other, in one-step two-step, one step at a time.”
From the first page, Forbes lets us know the novel is written from the vantage of our current political climate. “Long ago,” she begins, “teachers were sent from Britain to teach in the grammar schools of the West Indian colonies (it was Great Britain then, not Little England, as it is now, after Brexit and the fall of empire).”
Yet the characters slingshot back and forth through history to understand the people in power, their own narratives and the construction of their own mysteries and power. For example, Forbes reminds us that the history of sugar in the Caribbean is far from toothsome: “In case this is unknown to you, Jamaica from its infancy had been a sugar cane plantation, where people perforce ate a lot of sugar or its byproducts and leftovers. Sugar in the boiling houses made the slaves drunk, the great vats of it with its liquorish smell when it was in the making, and when it was made, the shining crystals scooped into vast kegs for shipping to England, the mother country. … After the long cruel hours in the canepiece, being bitten by cane rat, sugar snake, overseer whip, hot sun and cane leaf, when they went back to their slave cabins at night there was sometimes nothing to eat but sugar, but they could not eat it without becoming sick, or rather, more sick, since they were already sick in the beginning from too much consanguinity with its sweet stickiness. This is why it became a saying in Jamaica, Is one of two tings going tek you — if is not sugar, is heart failure.”
This is Forbes’s fifth work of fiction, and her narrative confidence is both subtle and commanding. “A Tall History of Sugar” is a gift for grown-up fans of fairy tales and for those who love fiction that metes out hard and surprising truths. Forbes’s writing combines the gale-force imagination of Margaret Atwood with the lyrical pointillism of Toni Morrison. Even growing up with a Caribbean heritage, though, I found myself pausing at lines like “Stiffnecked as mule batty, when mule decide fi siddung an don’ move, no matter how yu bawl out, Skuya! Skuya!”
Forbes offers translations of the Creole, so I didn’t have to guess any meanings or skim past the patois. Each shift into local language was more than merely colorful; it was emotionally and intellectually significant. This is a book for savoring, and the dialect is a rich layer I look forward to revisiting. I can only imagine how textured the audio version would be. I would have loved listening to the lilt of Jamaican patois; so much of the text feels as if it was meant to be heard, not just read.