Saturday, July 5, 2014

Land of Love and Drowning: A Novel

Title:  Land of Love and Drowning: A Novel
Author:  Tiphanie Yanique
Publication Information:  Riverhead Hardcover. 2014. 368 pages.
ISBN:  1594488339 / 978-1594488337

Book Source:  I received this book through a publisher's giveaway free of cost in exchange for an honest review. The book was delivered via NetGalley.

Favorite Quote:  "It does not matter, ultimately, what they heard or even what they knew. It is how they interpret the story that will make all the difference."

I almost gave up on this book at the start. It begins with reference to incest, extra-marital affairs, and self-induced abortions. Disturbing topics. Not ones I really wanted to read more about. However, I persevered, and I am so glad I did.

The themes do recur throughout the book, but the author weaves a beautifully written story of a place, a time, and two young girls with a lot of sadness in their lives. The place is the Virgin Islands. The time is the early 1900s when the Virgin Islands transferred from Dutch control to US control. The two girls are sisters, Eonea and Anette, daughters of sea captain Owen Arthur Bradshaw and his wife Antoinette.

The Virgin Islands were so named by Christopher Columbus in 1493. They were ruled by a variety of empires, with the longest rule by the Danish. The Danish gained control over the islands in the 1750s and retained control until 1917. At that time, the United States purchased the islands under the Treaty of the Danish West Indies. Transfer Day, celebrated as a holiday, was on March 31, 1917.

However, with the transfer came many unexpected side effects that all play a role in this story. Prohibition jeopardized one primary island business - the production and sale of rum. The islands' status as a US territory not a US state limited their rights in the country; even citizenship did not come to the islanders until the 1920s. The vision of the United States as the land of opportunity created a desire of the islanders to come to the mainland; most, however, found the reality not so opportunity filled. The tension of race relations in the United States carried over to the islands and their inhabitants, who had not felt the discrimination before.

Surrounding all these political and economic changes is the culture of the islands themselves. The myths and legends passed down from generation to generation and the spiritual practices of the Obeah beliefs create a blanket of mystery and magic around this ever changing landscape.

Within this historical context is the very complicated Bradshaw family. The family seems to go from challenge to challenge and disaster to disaster. Without revealing too much, let's just say that unplanned pregnancy, death, abandonment, relationships that should never have been, and emotional and economic losses all play a role. At the center of the maelstrom are sisters Eeona and Anette.

Eeona is the older one. She is "so beautiful that many call her pure and they think on the virgin hills. Or they call her pristine and they think of the clear and open ocean. Or they might use terms such as untouched or undefiled, but then they are cautious because they know that their words alone might spoil her." As the older child, she is the one who remembers the life before when the losses start to pile up. She is the one who spends her life trying to find her way back.

Anette is the younger one. The reader meets her before she is born. She is of the islands, speaking and telling her story in that island dialect. She knows very little of what came before. At one point in her life, she thinks, "This was either a major mistake or this was the man of her life. That these two things could be the same thing did not occur to her." This juncture and this relationship becomes a defining force in her life and in the life of those around her and those who come after.

The two girls and the tenor of the book remind me of The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. Both stories sometimes create the feeling of watching a train wreck. You know it's coming. You know it can't be prevented. You watch it happen, and watch the carnage in the aftermath. Yet, you continue to pull for the main characters and hope that somehow things will work out for them.

The author tells this story using multiple voices including Eeona, Anette, and the "old wives." We never meet the old wives. Yet, they provide commentary on the story throughout and provide some of the Obeah legends. "To be fair, it is all maddening. These myths that conflate and grow into one another ... Even myths must have their rebellions. Even we old wives must have our secrets." These commentaries add to the lyrical nature and the beautiful writing of the book.

The central theme of this book is unpalatable and disturbing. The writing, in contrast, in lyrical and beautiful. Together, they make for a book that kept me engaged from beginning to end.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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