Sunday, April 18, 2010


by Marie-Elena John

This was a selection for my book club and I was looking forward to reading it because it was set in Dominica. I love reading fiction set in the Caribbean and Dominica is one of my favorite islands. It turns out that the author is the cousin of the book club member who selected it, so she was able to provide some interesting background. This is the author's first book and although the author's immediate family ties are with Antigua her relatives originally came from Dominica.

The story is of a young woman living in Washington D.C. who grew up in Dominica and was sent to the states to live when she was a teenager after some unknown traumatic event. As an adult she feels the need to go back to Dominica and try and find out about her family history. The novel is the story of three generations of strong women. I concede that the book is one that my husband would call "womeny", nevertheless I thought the characters were interesting and I really thought it captured Dominica very well. I have never lived in Dominica but having visited Dominica a couple of times I could clearly picture what the author was describing.

I loved the scene where the locals were talking about the crazy tourists that had to go visit the boiling lake as it was absolutely dead on. I thought it gave a very interesting picture of the cultural elements of the island such as the Carib Indians (Dominica being one of the few remaining islands that is home to a significant Carib population), the Maroons, a community of runaway slaves, and the origins of Carnival. It engendered an interesting discussion in book club about the distinctions between West Indians and African-Americans, especially as both groups were well represented in book club.

I enjoyed the book so much that I gave away my paperback copy and bought a hard copy to add to my Caribbean fiction collection. Here is the blurb from the author's web site:
Unburnablea work of literary fiction that is at once a love story, a murder mystery, a multigenerational epic, and a reinterpretation of Black history – defies neat categorization. Covering the African Diaspora, this riveting narrative of family, betrayal, vengeance, and murder, follows Lillian Baptiste as she is willed back to her island home of Dominica from Washington, D.C. to finally settle her past. Haunted by scandal and secrets, Lillian left Dominica when she was 14 years old after discovering she was the daughter of Iris, the half-crazy Carib woman; and the granddaughter of Matilda, convicted and hung for murder. Their infamous lives were told of in chante mas songs sung during Carnival -- songs about a village on a mountaintop and bones and bodies, about African masquerades and a man who dropped dead. Lillian knows these Carnival songs – thus the history – belongs to her. After 20 years away, she returns to face the demons of her past, and with the help of Teddy, the man she has until now refused to love, she is determined to find her answers. Set partly in contemporary Washington, D.C. and partly in the Caribbean island of Dominica, Unburnable is the dazzling debut of a talented writer who deftly intertwines the African-American experience with authentic Caribbean culture and history – the Caribs, the Maroons, the African origins of Carnival, the practice of Obeah – and in doing so, showcases a new literary voice confident enough to also deliver a page-turner.
The author's web site also has some interesting reviews and interviews with the author. Although some book club members weren't sure they liked the ending, I thought it was perfect and everyone agreed that they enjoyed this book.

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