Half-Antiguan, half-Dominican Marie-Elena John is the latest name in the long list of Caribbean writers, of female Caribbean writers, to claim a place in the international literary scene. Her first novel, the celebrated Unburnable (AmistadHarper, 2006) is a well-wrought tale of love and hurt inscribed within the story of a Dominican exile, whose life in the USA has provided her with all the commodities of middle-class prosperity (a good education, an altruistic vocation, a life that is as comfortable as she will allow it to be) but that, for all its comfort, has failed to equip her with the tools necessary to banish the daemons that have ruined the existence of her entire family and, subconsciously, have chiselled the more troubled elements of her fragile self.
Through a simple structure of short chapters collating two tales – that of Lillian Baptiste’s present, and that of her family’s past in Dominica – John expertly weaves history and fiction into an integral narrative that takes the reader on a fascinating journey where instincts, magic, intuition and, above all, love are the real protagonists.
John’s knowledge and usage of Dominican history are instrumental to the development of a tale in which the proud identity of minority factions in a society hostile to multiculturalism helps create alternative world-visions – that of the Carib native, that of the maroon fugitive slaves – which eventually are crushed by the prevailing force of the ruling order.
In John’s engaging tribute to the ‘other’, love as an overriding principle and irrepressible power plays a role far more important than that of any conventional institution. Thus, Simon the Carib (Lillian’s grandfather) upon hearing about Matilda ‘did not wait out the day; he put down his gardening implements and left Roseau by his canoe, going up the flat Caribbean coast’ (p.31) is search of her. While Simon didn’t even need to see his chosen one to know that they belonged together, Lillian’s mother, Iris, does need to set her eyes on Jean Baptiste to fall in love with him: ‘she looked up, saw his face, and felt the room flip, the floor where the ceiling used to be […] She smiled at him, the man she had fallen in love with on sight’ (pp. 72-3). Similarly, ‘Lillian’s stepmother, Icilma, had loved Winston since she was a teenager, ever since she first set eyes on him’ (p. 63). In direct contrast to this stand time, Catholic votes, and even the sacrament of marriage (an institution despised by Caribbean women because by marrying ‘they were about to become somebody’s slave’, and they, as ‘descendants of slaves, of course, had a natural aversion to slavery’ (pp. 71-2)), all of which can easily be undone by the violent exertions of love.
Looking beyond passion and social conventions, John’s efforts to dissociate Caribbean society not only from the fundamentally different experience of African-Americans in the USA, but from Western ways altogether, lead her to elevate the African roots that are to be found ‘all around’ in Dominica to a plane that is too high to allow for a seamless connection between her fiction and the realities of Caribbean life (an eclectic mixture of, yes, African roots, with indigenous traditions, colonial legacy, distant warfare, multiple cultures and all the rest). The route John chooses to follow leads her story onto a cul-de-sac in which her main character, Lillian Batiste, is seen as a freak in Roseau, as well as in New York – an outsider alienated everywhere by her unique background.
At the same time, Unburnable’s most remarkable moments revolve around John’s exploration of a different ‘other’, a female, ‘matrifocal’ universe in which all male figures (apart from Lillian’s special friend, Teddy) feature only as complements to their stronger female counterparts. While this feminine cosmos does feature sharply distinctive sensitivities (such as the prevalence of love at first sight, for example), it remains on the whole a plausible, far from ideal, world populated by women who display courage, power and vice with the same ease and in the same measure as you would expect to see from competing males in a ‘macho’ environment: her account of Mrs. Richard’s brutal vengeance, breaking a bottle of Coke and planting ‘the jagged end of the bottle as far up into Iris as her hand would go. And then again, and then again’ (p. 121), stands out as a powerful example of the crude imagery used by John in the portrayal of some of her less charming characters. However, it is in the description of the subtleties of empowerment that are made available to women – even to nuns – through the dynamics of seduction, evidenced, for instance, in Mary-Alice’s fund-raising technique among rich old Texan businessmen to whom ‘she would provide the details of illicit sexual activity with pubescent girls’ (p. 59) in order to get contributions for her impoverished boarding school, where John’s insight and artistry combine for optimal effect.
Yet, despite John’s authoritative voice and appealing narrative, the book’s greatest flaw resides in its lack of elucidation. While a purposely ambiguous ending avoids disappointing cynics and romantics alike, (which is not to say that it keeps either of them happy), a substantial part of the novel’s 300 pages is spent building the profiles of Lillian’s and, indeed, Teddy’s characters, both of which remain incomplete after the final page. It is not enough to suggest that the last piece in the puzzle should be provided by the reader, as the book closes at the peak of the climactic action, whose effects would necessarily send ripples down the edifice of judgements and assumptions built by the reader throughout the book. Ultimately, John fails to deliver the firmness of hand expected from an author and humbly delegates the demiurge’s privilege of closure to the engaged reader. It is a task that, to be completed satisfactorily, requires re-reading and re-assessing the text – a labour I will spare myself, while I eagerly await her second novel.
ABRIDGED VERSION PUBLISHED BY THE WEEKENDER SUPPLEMENT OF SINT MAARTEN’S THE DAILY HERALD ON APRIL 4 2009.