Black Rock, the debut novel from Irish/Trinidadian writer Amanda Smyth, was included on Oprah Winfrey’s ‘25 Must Read Summer Books’ list and has been endorsed by British writer Ali Smith so it has garnered a fair bit of attention. (In the US the novel is entitled “Lime Tree Can’t Bear Orange”).
For me the book’s great strength is the way in which Smyth’s often poetic writing manages to appeal to all our senses. Trinidad and Tobago seem to spill out from the pages. You can feel the sun, the heat, feel the dust in your eyes, see those vast blue skies. One of the senses that she really stimulates is taste with abundant references to food and drink: coconut cake, breadfruit, Machineel plums, mangoes, oranges and limes and planter’s punch. It is a very ‘visual’ novel, related to the reader through the eyes of the narrator and central character, Celia, whose mother died giving birth to her. The novel is the story of Celia’s personal and geographical journey, from childhood innocence to the many challenges of adulthood, from the small island of Tobago to the larger one of Trinidad.
A seductive, almost hypnotic fairy tale atmosphere pervades the novel which is shot through with Gothic imagery.
For instance we learn that a former neighbour, an undertaker, indulged in necrophilia and there are references to ritual, sacrifice and obeah (voodoo shamanism). When Helen Rodriguez suffers her nervous breakdown she appears in a “long silver dress” that has a “silky train” and she tucks her “dirty feet” under her as she sits down. However, despite these examples I felt that the novel did not deliver on its cover note’s promise that it conveyed “a vivid sense of the supernatural.”
While Black Rock has been compared to Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, for me it had echoes of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, from whence Rhys’ book emerged. Just as St John Rivers rescues Jane Eyre who has fled from horror and who collapses in a delirium on the moors, so Celia falls into a fevered faint on the boat to Trinidad and is rescued by the noble but naïve William. Like Jane, Celia falls into a job easily (things just seem to happen to Celia) and also like Jane, she becomes enamoured with her employer.
Smyth does effectively convey the islands’ colonial life of the 1950s which is revealed through the hierarchies: Caribbean natives are servants and helpers; male Europeans, even the swarthy Dr Emmanuel Rodriguez, who is Portuguese, are in positions of power and control. The women are beholden to men, none more so than Celia herself, who I felt was portrayed as a victim because of her race, her gender and, we gradually realise, her extraordinary beauty. Given my own interests, I was impressed to read that the book was nominated for a NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People) image award for best work of fiction by a debut author though I was uncomfortable with some aspects of race in the book. Aunt Sula comes across as the strongest black character but others seem just a little stereotypical: the clairvoyant Mrs Jeremiah; the docile William and his pre-gangsta rap era brother, Solomon. Also Celia’s beauty is enhanced because she lighter skinned than the other native girls. I know that this was, and still is, often the case, that light-skinned black people are viewed as superior and more attractive than their darker counterparts – but it was a message I would have preferred not to have come across yet again.
Celia, as narrator, is herself a visually-oriented person, an observer, and for me this was the source of the book’s great weakness. Celia tells her story in a staccato, detached, matter-of-fact manner. I understand that this style reflects her youth and her emotionally dead state following the rape but it also meant that I did not feel much empathy for Celia, apart from when she suffers her defilement. She appears to have little inner life and for this reason I did not find the novel “intensely moving” as promised in the book’s blurb.
For example, she chooses to cleave herself to Dr Emmanuel Rodriguez yet I am not sure why she loves him. It seems to be mainly because his seduction methods are a sharp contrast to those of the rapist Roman Bartholmew. Rodriguez approaches her as gentle lover and helps remove the pain of her rape. Yet even he turns cold and hard hearted, choosing to uphold the status quo – life with his English rose wife – rather than to commit to Celia.
I also found the novel’s ending rather too neat and I felt frustrated that her parentage was portrayed as somehow more noble, more civilised and grand, because it emerged from the coupling of a black woman and a powerful white man.
Would I recommend this novel? Yes, for anyone who wants to escape to the sun-drenched islands of 1950’s Trinidad and Tobago. But if you are looking for emotional depth I would go elsewhere.
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