Wednesday, 26 February 2020

A Tall History of Sugar by Curdella Forbes

Reviewer: Catriona Troth 

What We Thought of It

A Tall History of Sugar, set in Jamaica, tells the story of Moshe, a foundling child discovered floating in basket of reeds among the sea grapes, and Arrii, the girl just one year older who becomes his friend, protector and interpreter. When they are little, the two are so close they can read each other’ thoughts. But life has a habit of getting in the way.

The novel opens in 1958 and ends in the present day, explicitly in the era of Trump and Brexit. It is a close up view of rural, post-independence Jamaica and its struggles to shake off the suffocating ties of the ‘Mother Country’.

“England was all around us, all the time. Right next door. Not just any door, but a glass door you could push and go straight through to the other side.”

Moshe is a misfit. Not just a foundling but racially impossible to classify. His skin his pale as clotted cream and desperately fragile, his features African, and his hair and eyes a strange two tone. He is also a talented artist, destined for international recognition.

Moshe’s sexuality, as well as his race, is ambiguous. His relationship with the avowedly gay character, Alva, reflects Jamaica’s own struggle coming to terms with gay relationships – another legacy of colonialism.

The politics is of the time is there. And the music. But also a sense of magic. It’s in the two children’s ability to read each other’s minds. In the mysterious way they track down the old woman who can tell Moshe something about his birth, and in the duppies that haunt a clearing near Moshe’s home, “spending their nights quarrelling and cooking insatiable meals in three-footed Dutch pots”. Yet Forbes herself rejects the label of Magic Realism and calls the book instead a Fairytale.

This use of a fairytale form allows Forbes to reflect the deeper history of Jamaica – such as the lasting scar of slavery, symbolised in Arrii’s family curse– a birthmark that torments them to agony at the start of every sugar harvest – and Moshe’s inability to tolerate even a trace of sugar.

The story is ostensibly told by Arrii, yet the voice of the novel shifts back and forth, easy as breathing, between first and third person, and between standard English and Jamaican patois. It’s unsettling at first, but fascinating, shifting our perspective in and out. At one point, between sections, there is even a wry step outside the frame of the novel, as the author notes that, “There are now too many spelling and grammatical errors in A Tall History of Sugar to make automatic corrections ... Oh, Lord, what is the correct and singular language to carry this freight, this translations of griefs?”

Forbes does indeed seem to be creating the language in which to tell the stories of her country. A bold and fascinating novel that weaves a spell around the reader.

You Will Enjoy This If You Loved: Empire of the Wild by Cherie Dimaline, Augustown by Kei Miller

Avoid If You Dislike: A somewhat ambivalent relationship with male homosexuality

Perfect Accompaniment: Bean stew with callaloo and Bob Marley’s Redemption Song

Genre: Literary Fiction, Adult Fairy Tale

Buy This Book Here

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