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📖 🇧🇧 #49: A devastating novel from Barbados
Cherie Jones' Women's Prize shortlisted debut
Welcome to Bookmarked, a weekly newsletter following my journey as I read one book from every country. As of this issue, I’ve read books by authors from a quarter of the world’s countries (!) and, as ever, I’d love it if you shared Bookmarked with anyone you think may enjoy it.
Set in Baxter’s Beach, an idyllic resort village in Barbados, Cherie Jones’s How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House opens with a man being shot dead during a burglary gone wrong. Soon afterwards, a baby is killed. It is these murders that set the wheels of this powerful, often relentless, novel in motion. And it is through unpicking the events that follow that Jones so deftly explores themes of violence, grief, and generational trauma.
The novel centres around Lala, a Bajan woman who earns money braiding white tourists’ hair and lives in a beachfront shack with her husband Adan, a robber and drug dealer who routinely beats her. Through backstory we learn that Lala comes from a long line of women who find themselves trapped in violent marriages. When Lala’s mother Esme is killed by her own husband, Lala is handed to her grandmother, Wilma. But Wilma’s house is not safe either and Lala winds up sneaking into the outhouse at night to avoid the sexual advances of her grandfather.
On the day she had begged Adan to take her with him, to let her come and live with him in his little house by the sea, Lala had not been told the story of Wilma’s marriage or Esme’s courtship; she did not understand that, for the women of her lineage, a marriage meant a murder in one form or another.
On the night of the first murder, Lala crosses paths with Mira Walden, a fellow islander and the much younger second wife of a wealthy Englishman called Peter. Though their lives couldn’t be further apart—Mira lives in one of the newly built mansions on the shore and has everything she’s ever dreamed of—throughout the course of the novel both women find themselves desperate and alone.
Through a third person narrator, Jones inhabits the voices of Lala, Adan, Esme, Wilma, and Mira as well as Tone, a beach gigolo and Lala’s teenage sweetheart; Beckles, the lead investigator of the murders; and Sheeba, a sex worker and the object of Beckles’s obsession. Twice she uses the second person point of view for Lala’s character, calling for the reader to understand the extent of what Lala is going through. This sporadic use of the second person is extremely effective at driving the novel’s emotional narrative arc.
How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House has both a propulsive plot and a rich cast of vividly-crafted, complex characters. Using flashbacks to shine light on its characters’ motives, it is a book that poses all sorts of difficult questions. Why should Lala leave Adan when she feels certain that she’ll invariably encounter similar abuse at the hands of another man further down the line? How can justice be served to those who’ve never known it? An extremely ambitious debut novel that had me gripped from the very first page.
How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones (Tinder Press, 2021)
More books by Bajan authors:
Here’s a list of other books I was recommended this week:
The Polished Hoe by Austin Clarke
Christopher by Geoffrey Drayton
No Man in the House by Cecil Foster
In the Castle of My Skin by George Lamming
Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord
The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord
A Sound of Rain by Karen C. Padmore
If you’ve read a brilliant book in translation or you’d like to pass on a recommendation, I’d love to hear about it! For this project, I’m focussing on contemporary fiction and short stories, with a preference for female authors—but I’m always happy to venture further afield for a good recommendation.
You can get in touch by replying to this email or leaving a comment. I’ll be featuring your recommendations in upcoming newsletters, and I’ll keep a growing list here.
Bookmarked is written by Tabatha Leggett. If you know someone who would enjoy this newsletter, please forward it to them!