‘Popisho’ imagines a magical realm teeming with memorable characters

Wendy Smith (author of Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940) reviews Popisho, a new novel by Leone Ross. Read the full review at The Washington Post.

Leone Ross’s third novel is so overstuffed with characters and plot that readers will either close it in frustration or embrace it for the author’s verbal gusto and brilliant, kaleidoscopic scene-setting. While “All the Blood Is Red” and “Orange Laughter” were by no means straightforwardly realistic fiction, Ross grounded them in specific real-world landscapes. But in “Popisho,” about a fictional archipelago with echoes to the Caribbean, she emulates the work of Gabriel García Márquez and his Latin American peers by delineating a world in which magic is a matter-of-fact presence in people’s lives.

The various manifestations of magic take a while to emerge, but Ross states the basic premise early, in characteristically lilting language. “Everyone in Popisho was born with a little something-something, boy, a little something extra. The local name was cors. Magic, but more than magic. A gift, nah?” Xavier, the first character we meet, has a gift for food; he can cook meals that nourish an individual’s particular needs and has been chosen as Popisho’s “macaenus.” That job means “he had a scant twenty years to cook a meal for every single adult man and woman on Popisho. To delight a whole nation with his food.” Why 20 years? Does he need to cook meals for people who were fed by the previous macaenus? How specifically does he know what food they need? Readers who ask those kinds of questions may have a hard time with “Popisho”; Ross tends to be vague about details of the magical features she vividly establishes.

And those details certainly are vivid. We meet Xavier on the first anniversary of the death of his wife, Nya, one of those unhappy souls who “died alone, without proper burial rites, [so] the carcass wandered for years, rudderless, rotting and shrinking.” The warning signs of the “sweet hurricane” that provides the novel’s apocalyptic finale are sensed by the “indigent” who make up Popisho’s outcast lower class: “The earth vex . . . the soil stank of ancient warning.” In between those events, we learn that Popisho’s inhabitants eat butterflies, which have the same effect as alcohol, but “it took practice to pluck them from the sky and eat them alive. If you didn’t know how, you found yourself coughing dust, a puzzled creature beating wings in your throat, scales sticking to your teeth.” Even when you’re not quite sure exactly what’s going on, Ross’s imagery makes a visceral impact.

Butterflies are a relatively harmless vice, but giant moths are like heroin: “The moth eater is always moved to begin again,” an obeah woman tells Xavier. (Obeah women “curate magic” and identify each child’s cors.) Xavier knows; he still hungers for moth even though he gave it up years ago with the help of Anise, the women he loved more than the woman he married. Anise nowadays has troubles of her own. She has miscarried four pregnancies, and when she refuses to try again, her husband, Tan-Tan, refuses to have sex with her. Xavier and Anise are two principals in a teeming cast of characters that also includes crooked governor Bertie Intiasar; his estranged gay son Romanza; salty female radio host Hah; former macaenus Des’ree, Xavier’s teacher and onetime lover; and a done-with-it prostitute named Lyla who throws away her “pum-pum.”

And those details certainly are vivid. We meet Xavier on the first anniversary of the death of his wife, Nya, one of those unhappy souls who “died alone, without proper burial rites, [so] the carcass wandered for years, rudderless, rotting and shrinking.” The warning signs of the “sweet hurricane” that provides the novel’s apocalyptic finale are sensed by the “indigent” who make up Popisho’s outcast lower class: “The earth vex . . . the soil stank of ancient warning.” In between those events, we learn that Popisho’s inhabitants eat butterflies, which have the same effect as alcohol, but “it took practice to pluck them from the sky and eat them alive. If you didn’t know how, you found yourself coughing dust, a puzzled creature beating wings in your throat, scales sticking to your teeth.” Even when you’re not quite sure exactly what’s going on, Ross’s imagery makes a visceral impact.

Butterflies are a relatively harmless vice, but giant moths are like heroin: “The moth eater is always moved to begin again,” an obeah woman tells Xavier. (Obeah women “curate magic” and identify each child’s cors.) Xavier knows; he still hungers for moth even though he gave it up years ago with the help of Anise, the women he loved more than the woman he married. Anise nowadays has troubles of her own. She has miscarried four pregnancies, and when she refuses to try again, her husband, Tan-Tan, refuses to have sex with her. Xavier and Anise are two principals in a teeming cast of characters that also includes crooked governor Bertie Intiasar; his estranged gay son Romanza; salty female radio host Hah; former macaenus Des’ree, Xavier’s teacher and onetime lover; and a done-with-it prostitute named Lyla who throws away her “pum-pum.” [. . .]

For full review, see https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/popisho-book-review/2021/05/03/6d337690-a8ef-11eb-8d25-7b30e74923ea_story.html

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