As a consequence of slavery and its legacy of racism, many parts of the family histories of Caribbean people often remain untold. Taken as synecdoche, Olive Senior’s novel Dancing Lessons shows how this pattern of silence and elision and lies can hurt for generations, wounds suppurating until families seem to explode from untold pain. This, for me, is the lasting impression of this gloriously well-written story recounted via the journal of G Samphire, an elderly woman who is coming into an understanding of herself only in the late part of her life. Dancing Lessons is the first novel published by Senior, a masterful poet and short-story writer who won the inaugural Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for best book with the 1986 collection of short fiction Summer Lightning and Other Stories. In Dancing Lessons, Senior proves she can sustain her elegant, powerful prose fiction in the long form as well as the short, and readers will be pleased that her gift for characterisation has survived the transition. In G we are given a character who is nearly wordless in life but in her journal brims with eloquent, catty observations about the people and places surrounding her as she reluctantly becomes a resident of the chichi Ellesmere Lodge, a retirement home in the city, after a hurricane destroys her country farm.
The novel is set in the retirement home in the late 80s or early 90s, and the main story revolves around G’s relationship with its colourful denizens and her eldest daughter Celia, with whom she is cordial but distant. The journal itself is written as a rumination but becomes a way for G to break the silence of her tongue and loosen what she calls “the knots that bound up the secrets of [her] heart” for her daughter. However, the real core of the novel is G’s telling of her tortured history, the what and the why behind the still tongue. By the end of the novel one can’t quite accept G’s silence because of its devastating consequences, but one can at least understand its provenance. These segues into G’s family history somehow have the flavour of the Lorna Goodison memoir From Harvey River—the chronicle of a middle-class rural Jamaican family—but with far scarier characters and situations. The book also reminded me somewhat of the Barbara Lalla novel Cascade, which is also set in an upscale retirement home in Jamaica. Yet, in spite of these resonances, Dancing Lessons is a unique creation, possibly because of G. Senior doesn’t set out to make a likeable heroine, or one who is a perfect mother. Underneath her insistence that she has been hard done by, G seems blind to her complicity in her own oppression. Despite this and an ending I personally found unsatisfying because it leaves so much unresolved and unknown, the novel held me rapt. G mightn’t be likeable but, boy, can she tell a story.