The dedication to Barbara Jenkins' exceptional short story collection, Sic Transit Wagon, to be formally launched at this week's NGC Bocas Literary Festival, ends with, "Better late than never"; and well it might: Jenkins turned 71 last year.
Because of her age alone, her first book may well be her last book; which might well be a great loss to the literature of Trinidad, the West Indies and the world.
As impressive as Sic Transit Wagon is–and it is hugely impressive on every front–the prudent reviewer would not make final pronouncements about Jenkins, even on its very obvious strengths. The real ability of most writers can only be properly judged by their second or later books–even if that test would declare the talents of Oscar Wilde, Harper Lee and Ralph Ellison to be indeterminable, since they "only" wrote The Picture of Dorian Gray, To Kill a Mockingbird and Invisible Man. To use another NGC Lit Fest name as an example, Marabou Stork Nightmares (and Glue, and Crime, and so on) confirmed Irvine Welsh to be the major talent that Trainspotting promised, and Moses Ascending and Johnson and the Cascadura proved Sam Selvon was, all along, doing far, far more than setting down his kicksy Notting Hill pardners' adventures in The Lonely Londoners. Barbara Jenkins' next book, then–and it is my fervent hope that there will be another one, and soon–will determine whether she is as good a writer as her short stories promise.
It is a measure of Jenkins' ability that it is easier to tabulate the flaws in her book than its achievements because, with the exception of only three stories–Gold Bracelets, Monty & Marilyn and The Talisman–every word written in Sic Transit Wagon is as close to perfect as writing gets.
In the first two stories alone, the beautifully titled Curtains and It's Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White, Jenkins' obvious multiple strengths reveal just how weak every other aspirant Belmont memoirist really has been so far. Where others have done little more than appeal shamelessly to group nostalgia, Jenkins has recreated the world from which they came with a staggering economy of words. Dialogue written in Port-of-Spain dialect, eg, the regular stumbling block of the amateur, is used sparingly, powerfully and almost always perfectly to the ear.
Even sharper than her ear, though, is Jenkins' eye. In the first pages, she portrays the back of everyone's grandmother's dress "with its printed yellow flowers on leafy green vines peeping through the woven cane of her rocking chair, her long grey plait swinging from side to side over the back of the chair as she rocked back and forth, back and forth. The rockers went squeak, bump, squeak, bump, against the hard mahogany floor with a rhythm so regular that, even if I closed my eyes, I could tell when the next squeak, the next bump, was coming."
This is as delightful as writing gets: the reader recognises, as the words unfold, his own memory in that of the writer, and fiction becomes documentary. Jenkins manages this kind of trick time and again. A list of goods set out in It's Cherry Pink recreates, in the mind of anyone who's "made message" for their mother, a trip to the neighbourhood "Chinee" shop: "Nestle's condensed milk, Fry's cocoa powder, bars of yellow Sunlight soap for washing clothes and a single-cup sachet of Nestle instant coffee, just in case..."
Sic Transit Wagon–the book's title is yet another example of Jenkins' gift for composing headlines that a newspaper editor might envy–proves, clearly and irrefutably, that Barbara Jenkins has a writer's ear and eye. Her next book will show whether she can sustain the writer's heart to complete the trifecta–and make a thoroughbred of her.
Even the weaker stories in this book, though, are strong, and would not grate on most ears at all. The prudent reviewer–and the eager future reader–however, might worry about what these three chinks in the armour might portend. The author information at the end of the book confirms what the reader suspects from the start: most of the stories are drawn from personal experience, as the best fiction almost always is, in one way or the other; what is uncertain, from this first book, is how much of the necessary invention is injected into the material to make the stories truly fictional and, ergo, genuinely universal. Have the flaws in the stories arisen out of the writer's inexperience, or her inability? Is she inventing stories that will be new to all who read them, or disguising well and merely setting down the real events of her own past?
If, in both cases, it is the former, Jenkins' next book will confirm her as a genuinely important writer; if it is the latter, the next book may never emerge; a true worst case scenario, and all the more reason to celebrate a powerful, positive and beautifully written debut.
Sic Transit Wagon
Author: Barbara Jenkins
Peepal Tree Press
Sic Transit Wagon and Other Stories will be launched at the NGC Bocas Lit Fest, Old Fire Station, Abercromby Street, Port-of-Spain, from 1.30�2.30 pm on April 28.