Trini-Irish Amanda Smyth's second novel A Kind of Eden, launched by UK publisher Serpent's Tail last Thursday, mixes genres, romance and thriller, to present a disturbing yet authentic picture of postmodern T&T in the noughties of the new millennium.
While the novel mostly reads from an expat perspective, it reverses the weary exotic tropical trope for what is fast becoming the mode in much Caribbean fiction–which for now I'd classify as tropical neo-gothic. Those who have dipped into the Noir compilations (particulary Haiti and Trinidad Noir) or even Marie Vieux-Chauvet's terrifying (and much earlier) novel of Haiti's Duvalier regime, Love, Anger, Madness, will find themselves in familiar territory: violence, degradation and horror superimposed on a fading tropical landscape or infernal urban warren.
Reviewing this text presents challenges on this side of the Atlantic which metropolitan critics don't face, yet which probably add to its complexity. I'm reminded of Haitian novelist Dany Laferriere's I Am A Japanese Writer–a typically Laferriere stroke of literary subversion. Currently–as the Bocas Literary Festival demonstrated earlier this year– the debate on exactly what constitutes a Caribbean writer/ Caribbean writing is still roiling with all the volatility of Dominica's Boiling Lake.
Those labouring in the feelgood workshops of Creative Writing or crumpling unsatisfactory manuscripts a la Jean Rhys in her protracted composition of The Wide Sargasso Sea, will be mortified (or amused) by Laferriere's coup in securing a major advance on the strength of his title alone. But beyond his Anancyesque manipulation of the publishing industry, Laferriere debunks the largely irrelevant debate on Caribbean writing with the simple yet unsimplistic point that when his book is read by a Japanese (substitute Mongolian, Italian, Russian, Senegalese) reader, he effectively becomes a Japanese writer.
Returning to the reviewer's challenge, A Kind of Eden will, I suspect, evoke quite different responses either side of the Atlantic. While it may be read in the UK as a thriller with tropical backdrop, shot through with reflections on such disparate issues as interracial and generational relationships, mortality, grief, marriage, monogamy, family and fidelity, love, infatuation and betrayal, a Caribbean and particularly T&T audience may squirm at the reality of what we've been living these last two decades and are still in denial about.
It is however, precisely this reality, ripping through idealised versions of lush land and beachscapes, of laid-back or highly sexualised natives cavorting in carnival mode, which is the book's strength. Neither Trinidad nor Tobago is spared and in the process Smyth questions the validity of nation-building texts espoused by postcolonial theorists, at a time when anyone outside the Caricom inner circle realises Caribbean nationalism has imploded in a postmodern danse macabre driven by the same complacency, greed, corruption and insularity Smyth focuses on.
Local readers may wince at being reminded of the gratuitous violence, horrific murders, rapes, child abuse, kidnappings; the intransigence, ignorance and ineptitude of our "protective services"; but then all this and more is faction rather than fiction. There are sympathetic local characters (Safiya, Martin's love interest, Terrance the Tobago housekeeper) besides the crew of Tobagonian psychopaths who burst upon us in the second, harrowing section of the novel.
If Smyth seems harsh on T&T she does not spare her English policeman protagonist Martin Rawlinson, whose trajectory reveals as much about outsider perceptions of the contemporary Caribbean as it does about naivety and the human condition.
Those metropolitan reviewers with their restricted knowledge of the breadth of Caribbean writing, compared Smyth's first novel Black Rock with Jean Rhys (" a powerful cocktail of heat and beautiful coolness, written in a heady, mesmerising yet translucent prose"). Quite apart from the fact that A Kind of Eden's point of view is masculine, although we might compare the Trini Safiya and English Miriam and Georgia characters with some of Rhys' oppressed female characters, Smyth's new work is more reminiscent of Milan Kundera's provocative reflections on the human condition, although it lacks his sardonic humour.
A Kind of Eden is probably one of the first (if not the first) novels which frame the postcolonial relationship between the UK and its former colony of T&T. Supremely ignorant as to where he's headed, retired 49-year old English cop Martin Rawlinson escapes the grief of his eldest daughter's death by taking up a contract with the T&T police service; "Leaving England offered him a kind of relief. Since losing Beth they'd existed in a permanent state of grief....Here he was a free man."
Martin's grief is subsumed in his affair with the much younger Safiya, a Woodbrook journalist who may well be a surrogate for his dead daughter. This again is new territory for a Caribbean novel �highlighting not just the problematics of interracial and generation different relationships but also the inequality they pose. For Safiya's mother, Martin is a threat: "I don't want you in my house again. My daughter is all I have...An old man like you should know better."
For Martin, who is a potential mid-life crisis/male menopause candidate, Safiya is an anodyne he anesthetises himself with in the name of love: "...there is no remedy for love but to love more; let it take him where it will." While there is psychological justification for Martin's infatuation, Smyth directs us back to the motif of the European male who since colonial days and right into the postcolonial era comes to conquer hearts and make his fortune. This is another theme, which however uncomfortable, highlights existing tensions between former colonisers and the colonised.
The old tropical trope is viciously dismantled in the second section along with delusions about T&T's developed status. As Sherry, Martin's Trini housekeeper remarks: "Port-of-Spain is like Miami without the police. All those high-rise buildings. Everybody keeps talking about first world but there's nothing first world about our country." Similarly when Martin's wife Miriam first arrives in Tobago she produces the usual touristic clich�s: "What an abundance of colour; what a wealth of beauty. This place is a kind of Eden." But before the conclusion of the traumatic second section she revises her initial opinion: "She tells him she will never come back here. This is not a paradise; this is hell."
Without disclosing too much detail of the second section (hell to the first section's paradise?) suffice it to say that the paranoia and violence it evokes are all too credible. The deceptive restraint of the first part dissolves into a nightmarish pace, punctuated by events we've come to dread reading about in the press, but which have been as much a feature of Caribbean life and reality since Columbus. A Kind of Eden is another side of the paradise constructed in the European imaginary. As Smyth shows us �now is the time for some serious deconstruction.