[14 July 2014]
“Family will always kill you—some bit by bit, others all at once. It is the love that does it.” So explains Land of Love and Drowning, a beautiful novel by Tiphanie Yanique (How to Escape from a Leper Colony) that chronicles the lives of three generations in the US Virgin Islands in a magic realist family saga.
Readers are also told a history of St. Thomas, beginning with Transfer Day, when the Americans took over from the Danish, and moving on through the ‘70s to unpack the impact and legacy of racism in America as it affects the Virgin Islands. Although the novel is fairly presented as a family saga in the vein of Gabriel García Márquez‘s One Hundred Years of Solitude, or a love story like the one in Love in the Time of Cholera, the meat of the story, and its most interesting dynamic, concerns two sisters born of Owen Arthur Bradshaw, the owner of a cargo ship, and his wife Antoinette.
The older sister, Eeona, is a chilly beauty, focused on propriety and appearances, and yet harboring the secret of her incestuous relationship with her father. Eeona is so stunning that men are afraid of her—as Anette puts it, her beauty could sink ships—but she stays hopelessly in love with her father.
At one point Eeona’s mother, Antoinette, discovers that Eeona has silver pubic hair. The scene moves from magical to disturbing within a page. “Perhaps it was just ash, the mother thought madly, as though the daughter might be smoldering in her intimate places. But no, the grey colour did not come off in Antoinette’s hands.” Antoinette tries to wash the silver away, rubbing so hard that the color on the cloth is the “dark rust of blood.” The narrator intimates that Eeona turned silver because of her father’s touch, but also notes “Eeona felt her mother’s breath on her like a lover’s. Now Eeona found the silver curiously beautiful, but she knew she should be ashamed of this thought.”
As time goes on, the resentment towards her mother grows “like a tumor, or like a child.” The novel’s motifs are symmetrical; without giving too much away, this scene is echoed later by Eeona’s discoveries about her niece. Eeona displaces the resentment metastasized in connection with her mother onto her younger sister.
Eeona’s younger sister Anette is red-haired, impetuous and comfortable with herself, speaking with rawness and immediacy in a local dialect (which Eeona attempts to correct). Men stick to Anette “like the slick of mango juice.” She eventually appears in an American movie and has children with three different men.
In an interesting piece of complexity to the Anette character (and a lovely upending of American stereotypes about who gets to tell authoritative stories about a collective past), she becomes a historian—and thinks of history as a kind of magic. She explains, “This ain true history. I just saying that given what we know about the place and about the time, my version seem to have a truth somewhere. Is just a story I telling, but put it in your glass and drink it.” Yanique’s acknowledgements disclose that Anette is based on her own grandmother.
Early on, Antoinette tells Eeona legends from her homeland of Anegada (translating to “the drowned land”), the northernmost of the British Virgin Islands and the only one not of volcanic origin. Some of the lore concerns the Duene women, who live in the waters of the Anegada Passage and sink ships with their singing. The women protect the wild things of the water while the men protect the wild things of land. The men and women have feet that can face backwards in order to make it difficult for humans to track them. Eeona realizes that the “wildness” protected by the women and men of Anegada is not only such things as a gathering of trees, but that it could also be a wildness inside of her.
After Owen dies, relatively early in the novel (possibly because of Eeona’s ship-sinking beauty), Eeona’s story transforms into one of how to contain this wildness. Eeona’s magical thinking about her father’s death, and her own desires, provide the driving force beyond her story. Antoinette abandons the two sisters for Depression-era New York, leaving Eeona to raise Anette, three months after Owen’s funeral. She dies shortly after she returns to St. Thomas, unable to find work in America.
Some of the most gorgeous, affecting scenes, the most unique uses of language are in early family scenes involving Owen, Antoinette, and Eeona, with interludes of backstory provided by Anette who is as-yet unborn. Yanique tends to unfold a scene completely and bravely, and then sum it all up with an unforgettable aphorism. For example, Anette is born after Antoinette learns of Owen’s affair with Rebekah McKenzie, who she sees as a witch woman and who is later described as a “woman of roots and incantations,” which is qualified with “(b)ut this is the Caribbean and so no one is one thing; no one is pure.”
Reacting to her knowledge of Owen’s affair with Rebekah, Antoinette names the child after herself and gives her the last name “Stemme” after her maiden name, rather than “Bradshaw” after her father. Yanique concludes this paragraph with “Naming is a parent’s first sorcery.” There is no chapter break to underscore or stop the momentum—instead, Yanique continues, concluding the scene with the Antoinette’s experience breastfeeding Anette.
The dichotomy of the cool-headed sister and the warmly passionate sister strongly reminded me of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (there are a number of plot elements that reminded me of British 19th century novels, including those by the Bronte sisters, in spite of the magical elements), but with very different conclusions drawn and a generous openness that runs counter to Austen’s narrowed, careful focus.
Specifically, the novel seems slanted or predetermined towards Anette’s version of events, a favoring of the mystical and hot-blooded over cool surfaces and clear headed choices. This orientation, as you might expect, also pushes towards the human, the fallible, the lovely-strange, and the unpretentious. Anette’s aesthetic carries over to the book as a whole. This thrust works throughout the novel’s first half and at its ending. It is one of Yanique’s strengths as a novelist, but it also proves to be one of her novel’s weaknesses.
While the sisters are the heart of the novel, the other primary plot revolves around a dark and charged romance dependent on the death of the parents. Although she marries someone else, Anette falls in love with Owen’s son, her half-brother, Jacob Esau McKenzie. In a memorable scene, the two meet on the beach when they are children. Anette is wearing a red dress and holding a conch in which she hears her father. Jacob wants to save her from drowning, but instead she shows him the conch.
Rebekah and Eeona, both formerly in love with Owen Bradshaw, know who the other is immediately and grab their respective charges, separating them without a clear explanation. The two children don’t forget each other and their love story—or, rather the complications associated with it—takes up most of the second half of the novel.
The novel sags at various points in the second half and its pacing suffers occasionally from its own gregarious, feeling impulse and its perspectival jumps. The story is told not only by the sisters, but also by Jacob and by an unknown collective female narrator that refers to itself as the old wives. Most of the time I was seduced by this rebelliousness within the text —a wildness and looseness about what details and events should be included— but occasionally I was discontent trying to figure out (seemingly) aimless action that worked towards making the novel a saga, rather than a tightly focused portrait about sisters. They produced the most electricity within the novel.
I don’t think that my dual reaction to this text is a negative—on many occasions I wondered if the fault was not in the text at all, but in myself as a certain kind of reader, for wanting to pin a beguiling story down to one thing, instead of simply appreciating the rhythms of the Caribbean where “no one is one thing.”
As we come to understand Eeona and Anette intimately, Yanique also unspools a historical narrative about the effects of American tourism and exploitation on the Virgin Islands, weaving in an exploitative American film that, unbeknownst to the islands, contains soft porn, and a hurricane. Yanique has a distinct, arresting way of casting a spell and prodigious storytelling talents that allow us to absorb her sensuous blend of history and myth without any doubt that it all happened. This book’s sustained and rhythmic evocation of time and place is spectacular, and it seems likely to become a classic of Caribbean American literature to which readers will want to return again and again.