Book Review: Oh Gad!, by Joanne Hillhouse

The debut novel of Antiguan writer Joanne Hillhouse, Oh Gad!, closely maps the travails of its young protagonist, caught in the middle of an identity crisis that might or might not be unique to, but that certainly is definitive of, the post-yuppie generation of the turn of the millennium: the 30s, post-graduate, fault-start, early-adulthood crisis.
 

Nikki Baltimore is in her thirties, but despite the early promise of what we can only assume was a sophisticated education she finds herself engaged in a dead-end job in a suspect NGO in Harlem, while at the same time caught in a stable relationship with a suave young executive, which is as unfulfilling as it is unbalanced. This is the context from which a call shakes her into action, to pluck her out of her own world and place her back in the midst of her family’s roots, which for so long have seemed distant and unconnected to her. 

 

Hillhouse follows the ups and downs of a quest that is haphazard in the best of cases—and irritatingly inconstant at worst—as Nikki rushes a visit to her native Antigua, where her mother has passed away. The problem is that the protagonist never had a relationship with her mother to speak of in the first place, since her father, a cold and respected American academic, decided to rescue her from the hopeless environment of her mother’s rural island village as a young child to introduce her to the whole spectrum of opportunities afforded by the American dream.

 

As it turns out, Nikki’s loose ties to Antigua prove firmer than her commitment to her fledgling (or flailing) career in New York, as she embarks on a journey that involves self-discovery, even if it is as a collateral result. In the absence of anything meaningful to hold on to in New York, a city the narrator tells us never felt like “home” to Nikki, she seizes the chance to escape what has become an increasingly oppressive relationship and opts to explore her own past and her heritage in the process. But as the protagonist soon discovers, lost time cannot be made up, and belonging is a sense that cannot be purchased, obtained or even earned: belonging—and this is one of the few points the novel is successful in delivering consistently  from the start—needs to be extended by others, bestowed, as it were, on us by those to whom you belong. Nikki, a stranger in New York, finds herself on the far end of the periphery of society in Antigua, where she is mistrusted and used as a dubious outsider.

 

Initially, however, things go well for Nikki in Antigua as she gets involved in an affair with an influential local politician who, quite literally, invents a government role for her to fulfill while she acts as his sexual toy. But while she has a good time, her alienation from the society she has come to discover becomes visible in the perception and the behavior of her sister, with whom she has always had an acrimonious relationship, toward her. Audrey, Nikki’s older sister, is brutal and unforgiving but in due course it becomes obvious that she is just more honest with the protagonist than the rest of the people around her—an honesty that perhaps can be read as her very own goodwill gesture toward someone she doesn’t like, particularly, but to whom she is bound by the  thick fabric of blood. Nikki’s inevitable fall from grace forces her to weave new relations outside her family nucleus in the Antiguan social construct. It also lands her squarely in the middle of a moral conundrum linked to the largest economic development in the island, which provides the backbone to the novel’s plot as Nikki works her way out of her own confusion and into the society where she ultimately finds her place.

 

Oh Gad! is not so much a novel of coming-of-age—a bildungsromanin the European tradition—as it is a personal scrutiny perfectly in tune with the most characteristic tropes of Caribbean literature: family and identity. Despite the vast tradition of works that stand alongside Hillhouse’s in the exploration of these themes, she is on occasion capable of delivering a personal note on a subject that is both tremendously familiar and equally delicate. Unfortunately, however, those occasions are  significantly outnumbered by the recurrence of less successful episodes. In terms of the story, Hillhouse’s tale is so dramatically punctuated by tragedy that ultimately it seems like everything becomes an exception: the death of Nikki’s mother acts as a suitable catalyst for the plot to unravel, but piled on that death there is a car accident, another fatality, a miscarriage, an attempted suicide, an instance of sexual abuse, and so on and so forth, all of which taint Oh Gad! with a purple hue that is difficult to shed as readers delve deeper into the book.

 

At the same time, a number of omissions, especially in relation to Nikki’s background, undermine the credibility of a story that is progressively dominated by long transcriptions of dialogues that oscillate between the corny and the quaint. Hillhouse evidently has an ear for the local dialect and on occasion her rendition of an exchange provides a useful insight into her characters. But much of the value in fiction lies in the detailed depiction of a particular or individual situation from which  conclusions can be derived and applied to general conditions. It seems a shame that in a large proportion of the 400+ pages that comprise her novel, and specifically in much of her dialogue, Hillhouse forgets the purpose and becomes too comfortable in the simple telling.

 

But none of this spells the true downfall of Oh Gad!: that is down to the novel’s narrator, an intimate voice that is closely connected to Nikki. So closely, in fact, that the entire novel is told from her perspective, but in third person. So closely, indeed, that it becomes extremely difficult to separate the character from the narrator. By amalgamating the narrator and the protagonist of her novel, which is also its subject, Hillhouse makes it almost impossible for the reader to gain the necessary distance to gauge the story. Only once Nikki is given her father’s journals, 150 pages into the novel, are we presented with an alternative narrative voice, one that is distinct from Nikki’s and that allows the reader to take a step back. As a matter of fact, Hillhouse so emphatically succeeds at this stage in building a framework of interpretation that we are left to wonder why she has chosen not to inform her novel with this sort of narrator from the start. But she hasn’t, opting instead to involve the reader fully in the psychological frame of a character who, ultimately, is neither likeable nor empathetic.

 

This results in a lukewarm response at best, and ultimately signals the failure of Oh Gad! Nevertheless, Hillhouse’s talent, evidenced repeatedly in her confident and often mesmerizing phrasing, merits another opportunity—perhaps one that is more carefully proofed by the staff at Simon & Schuster to rid it from small but irritating mistakes. Till then, we’ll be left wondering all that could have been.

 

 

Published by the WEEKender supplement of Sint Maarten’s The Daily Herald newspaper on Saturday, June 8, 2013.

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