Reviewed by Rebecca Foster
From the title and the Montego Bay, Jamaica setting, you might be expecting a story line light enough to match the Beatles’ pop song. But Nicole Dennis-Benn’s debut novel is no cheerful tale. Instead, you might think of the sun as coming to expose secrets, crimes and prejudice. The focus is on a triumvirate of strong women: mother Delores and her two daughters by different fathers, 30-year-old Margot and 15-year-old Thandi. Thandi is still a student at a Catholic high school, and both Delores and Margot pin all their hopes on her. Dreaming of her younger daughter becoming a doctor, Delores raises money at the market by haggling with tourists over overpriced souvenirs. Meanwhile Margot works at the Palm Star Resort, supplementing her hotel administration work with after-hours prostitution.
There is a strong sense throughout of reality not matching up with the characters’ goals. The family lives in River Bank, a rural slum composed of tenement yards and shacks where the residents keep chickens and have no legal access to electricity. Margot wants to buy them a proper house but can’t get the money together despite her covert second career, and she’s not sure she has the courage to pursue a relationship with the person she really loves, an older woman named Verdene; she finds herself “vacillating between two secret lives.” Thandi is also trying to redirect her future in a few ways: focusing on art instead of the sciences, catching Charles’s eye, and going to Miss Ruby for skin lightening treatments to get more positive attention. But this last venture is doomed to failure:
Poor souls think a little skin-lightening will make the hoity-toity class see them as more than just shadows, slipping through cracks under their imported leather shoes.
The boy holds Thandi’s stare. With a slight drop of his head, he looks her up and down as she gets closer … [T]he boy’s dimples disappear and he wrinkles his nose and walks away. Thandi has been acknowledged and dismissed in the time it takes to get to the other side of the dance floor. The belly-skip of possible love with a cream-skinned mulatto is nothing compared to the vile liquid that presently shoots through her veins. Her hope wilts on its stem before it can bloom into promise. Miss Ruby was wrong. Bleaching her skin doesn’t make them see her as beautiful.
Even in 1994, when the novel is set, white men still hold the real power in Jamaica. Margot’s boss and lover, Alphonso Wellington, is from an important white family. When he decides to expand the hotel’s empire with a new resort that will wipe out the River Bank shanties, the residents get notice to vacate and it’s clear they have very little recourse. Black women only have the modicum of power they can claw back for themselves, as when Margot blackmails Alphonso into giving her a managerial position by threatening to alert the authorities to the prostitution ring. Most often, sex appears here as a commodity traded for self-determination.
You might think of this as a cautionary tale: be careful what you wish for, as going after what you can’t have – or going after the right things in the wrong ways – may well end in disaster. I even noted something of a feminized Great Gatsby setup here, with the search for riches, an accidental death and a backfired affair all coalescing in the novel’s final third. The four main female characters (including Verdene) are all very well drawn, and Dennis-Benn paints her native Jamaica in loving detail. I loved metaphors like “Even the red hibiscuses hang from their stems like the tongues of thirsty dogs.” It can be a challenge to traverse whole pages of dialogue in patois, though; while not as intimidating as Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings, this still takes some patience, and it’s slightly obvious as morality tales go. Ultimately, though, it’s a powerful evocation of a country in transition, and one where race and sexuality are still forces of division in families as well as in society at large.
An American transplant to England, Rebecca is a full-time freelance editor and writer. She reviews books for a number of print and online publications in the USA and UK, and blogs at Bookish Beck.
Nicole Dennis-Benn, Here Comes the Sun (Oneworld Publications: London, 2017). 978-1786071248, 352 pp., hardback.
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