Kingston, like most major cities in the developing world, is a mosaic of highly contrasting elements that combine in different, and often tremendously cruel, ways to create a whole plethora of separate realities. Unlike most cities in the industrialized world, such realities – the idiosyncrasies, the habits, the hopes and expectations that pertain to each of the various communities that, together, constitute the urban space – are vastly, heartbreakingly, distanced from one another, effectively creating parallel and incommensurable existences within a common space. Diana McCaulay’s debut novel, Dog-Heart, bravely sets out to explore the consequences of this extreme form of social polarization and inequality, as well as the possibility of a closer interaction between individuals from sharply contrasting social backgrounds.
The plot of the novel is as simple as it is implausible: Sahara, an emotional, middle-class, single brown mother runs into a likeable child, barely a couple of years younger than her own teenage son, begging outside a mall in town. She takes a liking for Dexter, the child, and, after a brief conversation, hands him 500 Jamaican dollars. In the real world, that is already well beyond the point where all would have ended. But in the world McCaulay so carefully builds for us, Sahara’s instincts lead her to follow up on the leads Dexter has given her (all of which turn out to be false) to get in contact with his mother, and try to have a positive effect on his seemingly doomed destiny.
Ultimately, a relationship is established, and Sahara consistently helps Dexter’s family (his mother and two siblings) for well over three years, providing food and clothes, and arranging for the children to attend a reputable prep school, instead of the overcrowded and ill-equipped state-owned school they had attended up to that point. Initially the social experiment renders good results, but as Dexter begins the transition from childhood to maturity and he is faced with the expectations attached to the role of “the man” in his environment, he inevitable strays away from the lifestyle of a standard high-school student and falls back into the slot allotted to him in the slums.
By the time Dexter is forced to make a decision between his childhood friend, Lasco, a criminal well beyond redemption, a dog-hearted man who has taught him what he needs to know to survive in the ghetto, and Sahara, the good-hearted woman whose kindness led to the small amount of comfort he has ever experienced, the outcome is only relevant to the mood of the reader – for Dexter, the protagonist of the novel, is already lost, regardless of what he does.
Structured in two parallel lines that closely mirror each other through the actions of Sahara and Dexter, Dog-Heart weaves a sympathetic pattern that explores the conflicting realities they face on a daily basis, as well as the overwhelming prejudices those around them feel against the other. This results in the progressive construction of two truly engaging characters, drastically different, yet equally likeable, who carry the weight of the story from the very onset.
McCaulay’s decision to use the first person for both characters helps her to establish the opposite worlds within which her narrative moves by telling Dexter’s half in Jamaican patois and Sahara’s in standard English. Furthermore, the linguistic dissonance provides a fitting metaphor for the mutually excluding experiences of the two characters, who, indeed, share a common base (Jamaica), but who interpret such base (and everything else) in radically different ways.
Nevertheless, the complexity of McCaulay’s story as she delves deeper and deeper into the social, moral and circumstantial causes and consequences of the tragic condition that assails Jamaican society soon overflows the walls within which the author wishes to develop the novel. Consequently, the context of the story becomes progressively more diluted, especially in relation to Dexter’s everyday life in the ghetto. At the same time, however, the greatest accomplishment of Dog-Heart is probably the fact that, no matter how implausible or even predictable its plot might be, the reader is constantly inclined to continue reading, not so much in order to find out what happens, but simply to enjoy the company of Dexter and Sahara.
But if the thorough and sympathetic development of her two protagonists is McCaulay’s greatest achievement, then the most disappointing shortcoming of her novel is, undoubtedly, the wasted potential there is in a number of her secondary characters. This is most irritatingly true of Arleen, Dexter’s mother, whose insight into the world of the ghetto would have been priceless, and who remains a stale, predominantly silent and utterly passive character. The same can be said of Carl, Sahara’s teenage son, who acts as an obvious counterpart to Dexter, but who remains flat and unappealing, even after he undergoes his own form of transformation. Even Lasco, Dexter’s childhood friend, is cryptic and unpredictable, while only Lydia, Sahara’s friend and business partner, seems to evolve with the story, adding depth to the novel.
Ultimately, however, Dog-Heart is a thoroughly rewarding book. Not only because McCaulay has been courageous in the choice of her storyline, but also because she has remained brave throughout its execution, avoiding the sort of ambiguous ending that could have ruined much of her good work. In Dexter and Sahara we have two remarkable characters who entreat us to shift the conversation towards social – towards human – issues. And if McCaulay contributes to raise awareness and spark a debate about racial and social inequality in the Caribbean, then she will have achieved a lot more than simply having written an excellent book.
PUBLISHED BY THE WEEKENDER SUPPLEMENT OF SINT MAARTEN’S THE DAILY HERALD NEWSPAPER ON SATURDAY, JULY 7, 2012.