“Those who cannot say ‘prunes’ can say ‘guava’ ” was one of my maternal grandmother’s favourite pronouncements. It was uttered with exaggeration on the ‘prunes’ (half-rhyming with ‘prude’) and ‘guava’ (with overly enunciated ‘a’ sounds at the end of each syllable). The meaning was all conveyed in the mouth’s contortions; from butter-wouldn’t-melt pursed lips to widely opened jaws. It was a condemnation of the (ostensibly) sexually narrow-minded, but (actually) hypocritical judgmentalism of the striving genteel bourgeoisie. And there was no shortage of that type in the Woodbrook and Port-of-Spain of my grandparents. My grandmother has been dead for nearly 20 years, but Breanne McIvor’s novel brings back my grandmother’s voice with instant clarity and warmth.
McIvor is one of our country’s young bright talents. Her recent collection of short stories, Where There Are Monsters, was well received by the literary prize-givers. Penguin Random House has now published her much-anticipated first novel. There is a lot in her first novel that is worth waiting for (though the privileged attendees of this year’s Bocas Literary Festival were able to purchase copies in April, ahead of the official publication date).
McIvor is good people. Her book speaks about good things: good looks and looking good. But there is much that is bad and ugly in what its two narrators confront.
The novel is from here–very Trinidadian in its socio-economic realities and in terms of our Carnival tradition of mask-wearing. The masks in this case, however, do not mamaguy the elite. By contrast, they are the pretty faces created by expert make-up and worn as protection against our country’s power brokers.
Our heroine, Bianca, is the neglected daughter of a highly successful businessman. Her mother is dead and she is isolated. Scholarship-winning, she has returned from the UK with a first-class honours degree, anxious to start a writing career. She is also beautiful and discovers modelling as a means of securing a modest subsistence-level income. She falls in love with a married womanising predatory government minister. When the affair is outed, she is socially ostracised and loses her employment as well as her lover. She is now a pariah.
Bianca is undoubtedly the heroine of the novel. She has stylish and entrepreneurial chutzpah. We know she will prevail. Obadiah, the so-called “God of Good Looks”, is her nemesis. Though initially loathsome and laughable, we will learn to understand him and root for his success. Their success.
The God of Good Looks is difficult to put down, but it is no flimsy distraction. It may be a good read for the beach, but the ugliness that mars Trini life is all there: misogyny, poverty, corruption, conspicuous consumption, and false consciousness. There is the oppression of the plutocracy who gossip, close ranks, and destroy livelihoods and lives. And there is fear: fear of being unloved and friendless, fear of crime, fear of social exclusion, fear of the biased State and its inequitable resource allocation, fear of financial ruin and hunger.
The novel and its characters are fictional, but we are all too familiar with the characters that McIvor conjures. Her language has an unpretentious light touch, but the sociopathy of Bianca’s former lover, Eric Hugo, is deftly drawn. He is dangerous: cruel, indifferent, suave, and supported by a mealy-mouthed, bitter-tongued wife who ruthlessly uses her considerable influence and social circle to destroy the isolated young women that fall prey to her husband.
However, as I said earlier, McIvor is good people and that is what the novel is really about. The masks of “good looks” are worn by essentially good people. There are enough characters with generosity, resilience and agency to turn fortunes. Indeed, no matter how bad things get in this country, a country which people like to say is not a real place, we are a real democracy. People can and do get voted out.