Jeneva Savanoy knows more than her fair share of secrets. The beautiful, well-educated princess of the Savanoy clan, she understands the value of appearances, and the weight of prestige.
Her family rules the roost of Carnival masquerade competitions, with her stern father Carlton heading up the King of the Band, one of the rare occasions he's out of his chief of police uniform.
Jeneva's mother, Gloria, has been the longtime mas queen, fuelling her most recent performances with one too many gulps from a rum-filled glass. Their parents' marriage a hollow farce,
Jeneva takes solace in the company of her elder brother Remy, a talented masman who creates dazzling costumes, complete with disguises almost as elaborate as the one he keeps over his own personal demons.
How, in the midst of all this, will Jeneva confront the changes that are poised to sweep over both her mind and body? Can she dance the intricate footsteps of the Queen of Carnival, and will she be allowed to follow the insistent call of her truest desires?
Certainly, the pages of this Trinidadian-born author Nathalie Taghaboni's first novel are deeply lined with concerns of the heart. However, it would be short-sighted to label this fast-paced, frequently steamy read as a simple romance. Indeed, as the writer frequently shows through the adventures and trials of her characters, so little in life can be thought of as simple, maybe more so when one is a passionate Trini citizen. Thankfully, Taghaboni is not shy about her impressions of sweet T&T, describing it fittingly as "home to a roiling mass of contradictions... its people hedonistic and religious, superstitious and bold, irreverent and strict, lustful and pious."
It is in the pitch-perfect depiction of people that the writer's talents shine through. Jeneva and her dashing suitor Vijay resemble countless star-crossed lovers forced to navigate between obligation and the desperate need to be together. In their struggles with the demands of their parents, and the ways in which Trini society stereotypes their roles, we witness labels that are forced on so many real-life couples. Nor is it merely with the protagonists that this sense of familiarity flows-the author has shaped a Trinidad and Tobago so believable that we recognise traits and truths in even the most sideline figures.
Trinis who enjoy the heat at home, as well as those shivering away in less tropical climates, may well come to think of Across From Lapeyrouse as a reliable compass that points to the pulse of this nation. Those returning, for instance, from an extended stay "in foreign" will nod their heads to the familiar images conjured by this description of how it feels to touch down on local soil.
"Her entire body recognised and responded to the rhythm of the island. Far deeper and much more spiritual than even the pulse of the steelpan or the throb of a calypso, is the rhythm of the country itself."
Carnival, in all her splendour and multicoloured excitement, is given an impressive stage upon which to wine and strut in the novel. We're shown glimpses of what mas is like for expatriate Trinis abroad, which is described as no shabby undertaking. However, the real magic lies in the power of a home-brewed Trinbago Carnival. It is to her credit that Taghaboni populates her story with people who know and understand the lifeblood of this greatest show on earth. As one of the main characters reflects before she takes to the Savannah stage for Dimanche Gras, mas is about so much more than the costumes we make and wear. Inhabiting and revelling in these works of art, we celebrate our hidden and often-denied potential: as Trinis, as creators of beauty and as independent people.
Novels like Across From Lapeyrouse ought to come with an advisory warning: they are so much more than they seem. Charting one woman's growth with fiery intensity, and peppery doses of pure bacchanal, books of this nature force us to consider the romantic novel as a bold new entity. They bare their teeth, confirming in no uncertain terms that women can triumphantly tell their own stories and steer their own fates in pursuit of love, laughter and the meaning of life.