A review by Ann-Margaret Lim for Jamaica’s Gleaner.
The engaging storyline and realness of the characters in Barbara Jenkins’ De Rightest Place makes it a book you breeze through in a matter of days. Set mainly in and around a bar called De Rightest Place, in the environs of a working-class community in Belmont, Trinidad, the 276-page-novel boasts a ‘starring’ set of characters – Indira Gabriel, Bostic, Fritzie, and Jah-Son, with I Cynthia as the partial narrator and regulars such as Karl Lee and his girlfriends.
Why the word starring? Well, in some ways, Jenkins’ debut novel reminds one of the 1980s TV comedy series Cheers, set in a bar, with its regulars as the main characters. De Rightest Place is, however, in novel form and is a delicious 21st-century serving of Caribbean mix-up and pelau, as they say in Trinidad, with an older-woman-younger-man romantic plot and the good-old Caribbean paternity reveal, among other scandalous happenings, of course.
BOOK AS DESTINATION MARKETING
Particularly through her tantalising treatment of Trinidadian culinary specialities, Jenkins reminds one of John Hearne, the Jamaican author with strong international presence decades ago, who would masterfully tease readers with Jamaican cuisine and also its scenery. In this respect, Jenkins, like Hearne, sells the strong points of her country to readers, reminding us that authors have been great marketers of their countries. J.K. Rollins’ Harry Potter series, for example, annually brings in both manufacturing and tourism dollars, with fans worldwide flocking to different featured parts of the UK, reliving Potter’s experiences. Arguably, deceased Jamaican journalist and author of The White Witch of Rose Hall, Hebert G. de Lisser, has done something quite similar for Jamaica, particularly Montego Bay.
Through De Rightest Place, Jenkins successfully does many things. She transforms and formalises the ‘suss’ of ‘people business’ into a novel as her characters serve up delicious-sounding Trini food like pelau and more.
Adding to the virtual ‘slice of life’ feel of the book are the crime and corruption concerns, which currently plague not only Trinidad and Tobago, but other Caribbean countries. On the subject of Caribbean-wide similarities, there is a section of the novel, where both telecommunications providers’ systems are down because of ‘a little drop of rain’ and where also places are flooded because of the ‘little drop of rain’. Sounds familiar?
What would a book that aims to reflect contemporary ‘Trini’ life be without mas’ or carnival? De Rightest Place, having established itself as a popular and important spot in Belmont, is used by the local political representative to host the Devil Mas’ Competition. The words below from the book, in effect, summarise the sentiments of the author and, perhaps, ‘Trinbagonians’ on carnival and ‘mas’ in their country.
“The drama, the fear, the fun is still as fresh as the first time someone put on a pair of horns, a pair of wings, daubed mud all over, grabbed a pitchfork and played jab-jab on a long past j’ouvert morning”.
As Jenkins sells or markets Trinidad to the world, the engaging storyline and characters keep you turning the leaves to see how ‘de people business’ resolve, or their lives unravel.
The first four pages of De Rightest Place reminds one of many great plays, where the audience is introduced to the story, setting, and characters by the all-seeing third-person narrator, who, as we know, is a player in the story. I Cynthia, the partial narrator, introduces the reader to Belmont, briefly telling the story of her own origins, and, of course, introduces us to the main character, Indira Gabriel, who also partially narrates.
The story then begins with Indira in her room, 15 months after her husband, Solomon Warner, proprietor of De Rightest Place and pan aficionado, went to the Caribana Festival in Canada and never returned. In that room, which is part of the living quarters of the building, which houses De Rightest Place, Indira is in the process of evaluating her life, restocking, and retooling. This after months of shocked numbness and stillness as Bostic, Solomon’s boyhood friend, runs the bar.
In this moment of retooling, she writes a list naming her assets, or the reasons why all is not over. Included in that list is the bar, the fact that she is still relatively young, and also the fact that she is white. She recalls her experience in Europe, how despite her different accent, her skin colour shielded her from discrimination. In Trinidad, she notes that her blond hair, blue-eyes, white skin were a ‘veritable Holy Trinity of Privilege.”
In that moment, Jenkins, introduces a theme that is relevant in the Caribbean and the world over: that of privilege associated with race or skin tone. The theme, however, is not treated with a heavy hand.
Having already notched up her ratings as a storyteller through her interweaving of the race-privilege issue, Jenkins notches it up even further when we see this same race being part of the underlying pain in Indira’s life.
Indira (named after former Prime Minister of India Indira Gandhi) was born in India to white parents, whom, it seems, died tragically. She is left in the care of her Indian nanny and her family, but after a short time, is handed over to state care, with lots of instability, uncertainty, and pain to follow.
As Indira grapples with abandonment by her husband, the abandonment from infanthood replays. This is part of the brilliance of the book – the way the author relates current hurdles in Indira’s life to events in her childhood, thus making it also a good psychological read.
There are two Shakespeare quotes that De Rightest Place brings to mind. The first is “What’s past is prologue” taken from The Tempest, as we see Indira’s past shaping and replaying in her present. The second is, “All the world’s a stage, and all the women and men merely players”. This lesson Indira learns early in her childhood in India when she saw Indian actors unmasking and peeling off their costumes, moving from god-like figures to mortals. Of this experience, she says, “With that unmasking, I the child Indira, imbibed lessons about the power of illusion and the possibilities of transformation … .”
De Rightest Place is a substantial Caribbean novel, placed squarely in the now and pulse of ‘Trinbagonian’ life.
De Rightest Place
Peepal Tree Press Ltd: 2018