In the Caribbean and Beyond, Aunties Are So Much More Than Just Family

A review by Maisy Card for The New York Times.

By Alecia McKenzie

During a discussion of my own novel, “These Ghosts Are Family,” at a private book club, a group of Caribbean women told me that the one aspect of the story — which teems with the supernatural — that they’d found the most unbelievable was when a character dies and has his identity stolen because he has no family except for an aging grandmother to come looking for him. “That would never happen in the Caribbean,” one participant said. “He would have cousins, he would have neighbors, uncles — he would have aunties!” The Commonwealth Prize-winning, Jamaican-born author Alecia McKenzie’s tender new novel — an emotionally resonant ode to adopted families and community resilience — fills this gap.

“A Million Aunties” is a polyphonic narrative with a cast of characters who have experienced betrayal, disaster and loss at different stages of life. Chris, a young Black painter from New York, has just arrived in the fictional village of Port Segovia in rural Jamaica, searching for beauty and solitude after his wife’s death in a terrorist attack. It’s his first time visiting the island without his Jamaican mother, who died from cancer years before. At the advice of his agent and friend, Stephen, he has come to board with Miss Della, Stephen’s auntie, a term that transcends blood relation. Once “Stephen had mumbled something about his aunt getting him from a place called Anfields Children’s Home in Kingston,” Chris recalls. “She’d taken him to the country to help her grow plants and told everyone he was her nephew, and it had gone from being a lie to being true.”

The novel moves between faraway settings of Jamaica, New York and France (where McKenzie herself lives), and though supporting characters momentarily take center stage, it’s Chris, Stephen and Della around whom all the others seem to orbit. Stephen serves as a bridge, determined to bring people together so they can experience the same healing and warmth that Miss Della and her community gave him as a child. “In his most morbid moments,” McKenzie writes, “he sometimes thought: Lose a mother, gain a million aunties.”

McKenzie is careful to remind us that no place, however remote, can act as a sealed oasis from the outside world.
McKenzie is careful to remind us that no place, however remote, can act as a sealed oasis from the outside world.

Like Chris and Stephen, the broader community within this novel is also transnational. While most of the characters are Jamaican artists and their loved ones, McKenzie brings in others from different countries throughout the African diaspora, such as Féliciane, a French and West African installation artist caught in a love triangle between Stephen and her new boyfriend from the island. Of course no family exists without conflict. In a moving monologue, Chris’s father, an African-American Vietnam veteran in failing health, laments Chris’s late mother’s dismissive attitude toward American racism as “the arrogance and confidence of growing up as a majority.”

As Chris spends his days with Miss Della doing yoga and painting flowers — his artwork (and presence) revivifying the community, which is still recovering from a devastating landslide that forced many out of their homes — McKenzie is careful to remind us that no place, however remote, can act as a sealed oasis from the outside world. While visiting his mother’s hometown, Chris witnesses the aftermath of a gruesome accident, which the author describes in as much unflinching and vivid detail as she does the works of art her characters create.

A drawback to such polyphonic narratives is that some voices are necessarily drowned out by the chorus; story lines begin but don’t have time to fully develop or conclude as new voices are swiftly introduced. But the novel’s chapters alternate between first- and third-person narration, the former reserved exclusively for the older generation, the “aunties” and “uncles” who provide the historical anchor to the present narrative. This produces a wonderfully intimate effect as we listen to elders recount memories filled with joy and grief, some in a lyrical patois, making the reader privy to details they wish Chris and Stephen could hear and take to heart.

So although some story lines are left unresolved, the author seems less interested in how the characters tie up their conflicts and more in exploring how not just family but community can be our saving grace in our darkest moments. McKenzie’s message is clear: There is power in us simply showing up for one another.

By Alecia McKenzie
196 pp. Akashic Books. Paper, $16.95.

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