A Tall History Of Sugar: A Novel, by Curdella Forbes
This book was not what I wanted or expected–I was hoping for a book that would have some sort of explanation about the nature of sugar in the Jamaican economy and culture, perhaps fictionalized but at least a worthwhile historical novel. Instead, this book is an award-bait kind of novel that was not very enjoyable to read although it is the kind that is deliberately seeking critical praise. This book has a lot of the elements one would expect for being award baity, from its celebration of a nearly incomprehensible patois, its complex jumping forwards and backwards in time to disrupt linear story flow, its elements of religion and superstition, the fact that it is about a man but has a strong female character, deals with questions of race, politics, and sexuality, as well as having a fondness for art and a critique of American society. From its hatred of white Americans to its discussion of the aftermath of rape and sexual trauma, this novel has all you want in a literary novel except being morally worthwhile and enjoyable to read, but these are small considerations for those who award prizes to unworthy novels like this one.
In terms of its narrative, this book explores the complex friendship between Moshe and Arianna, two Jamaicans only a year apart who grow up together and find themselves involved in a magical realistic scenario where they are sheltered somewhat from the sexual experimentation and rampant premarital sex of their culture, find themselves present in each other’s minds, and find that their relationship with each other is made much more complex by their relationship with others. Puberty distances them from each other and then they make a series of decisions that bring them still further apart, from furtive sexual exploration to an ill-advised marriage, even as the difficulty in coming to terms with the past and with one’s own identity is explored in a thick patois that is by no means easy or enjoyable to interpret. This is not a novel written for people to read unless they are the sort of people who find the author’s approach to be breathtaking in its feminism and in its discussion about the world of art as well as what it means to be an outsider in Jamaica and the UK and anywhere else, and in the awkwardness of a private life for someone who has a near telepathic connection with someone else.
I can see why someone wants to write a novel like this. The author is herself a Jamaican who is living in the United States as a professor at a HBCU and this is not in any way surprising in reading the book, given that the main character can be assumed as somewhat of a stand-in for the author’s strident leftist politics and in her irritating feminist agenda, to the point where she assumes that Moshe is taking her for granted simply because he has secrets with other people and not just her. The author vividly portrays what it is like to be a jealous woman conscious of her own strength and determined to be respected by others, but the fact that the author portrays this convincingly does not mean in any way that the feminism of the book is in any way appealing. The fact that this book is focused on the life and experiences of a man who himself would be moderately appealing in his ambiguity and vulnerability but is told largely through the point of view of an unsympathetic female makes the book all the more frightening. If it is a common critique of male authors that they struggle to make convincing women, this novelist makes a convincing but unappealing woman and an appealing but not very convincing man. It may make for an easy novel to receive awards, but not an enjoyable one to read if one does not share the political worldview of the author.