Wednesday, September 6, 2017

What did the book club think of Nicole Dennis-Benn's "Here Comes the Sun"?

I recently finished reading Kamila Shamsie's Home Fire, the story of three siblings in contemporary London (and Massachusetts and Pakistan) whose fates are determined by their parent, and who must live in a society where their lives as British Pakistanis leave them with any number of obstacles to happiness. It's a tragic story, and it turns out to be inspired by a classic Greek tragedy, Antigone. So the only problem when I was trying to judge the book, I couldn't decide if I could do the book justice without knowing its source material.

So after that I started reading Nicole Dennis-Benn's first novel, Here Comes the Sun, another tale of family dynamics, passionate affairs that may or may not have ulterior motives, and the feel of a Greek (or possibly Shakespearean) tragedy. But the more I thought about, the more it seemed more inspired by Breaking Bad, a more contemporary and gray take on the morality and justifications. But then I thought, I'm not really sure, because I've not really seen more of an episode or two of Breaking Bad either.

I just watched the complete run of Parks and Recreation, so let me know when there's a book that's inspired by that. But I digress.

Here Comes the Sun is set in Jamaica in the early nineties. That's important, because it was just as the country focus on tourism went into high gear. Delores, the mother of the family, has a stall at the local market. Her older daughter Margot works at one of the hotels nearby, while the younger daughter Thandi is enrolled at a prestigious school. Both Delores and Margot have pinned their hopes on Thandi becoming a doctor, with Margot funnelling extra cash for the schooling.

But here's the thing, Thandi thinks she's on scholarship, but Margot is actually providing the money through prostitution. And she's got bigger hopes, of managing a new hotel when it's developed, and to do this, she's got to take her scheme to the next level. And her dreams of helping Thandi are not just academic - she wants to protect her sister from the abuse that she herself suffered at the hands of her mother.

Yes, you're probably thinking, running a prostitution ring to protect your sister from abuse? But that whatever it takes attitude runs through the story, and you see the cycle over and over. But as one of the attendees said at the discussion, you make the best of the hand you're dealt. I didn't put that in quotes because I'm paraphrasing.

I picked Here Comes the Sun, knowing this would be a tough book for some of our attendees, and interestingly enough, we even saw it in advance sales. While The Little Red Chairs, which also deals with abuse and mistreatment, took off in sales when we made it a book club pick, Here Comes the Sun struggled. And otherwise, the books have a lot of similarities, aside from the more recognizable name of Edna O'Brien. Both books were lauded, and both looked at the troubles behind a pleasant facade. I actually think a lot of folks bought O'Brien thinking it really was a sweet Irish village novel, but I guess people were less fooled by the island paradise vibe of Dennis-Benn's jacket.

Sure enough, there were attendees who really didn't like the book, but they were outnumbered by the readers who liked or loved it. I call that polarizing. I'm using that a lot to describe My Absolute Darling, the first novel from Gabriel Tallent, which has gotten some great reviews and much bookseller love (#1 Indie Next pick for September, three enthusiastic reads from Boswellians) but nonetheless has a vocal contingent of booksellers who do not like it at all, and I get to say that because we're not hosting the author. This, I guess, is the only upside of having a weak literary event calendar this fall. We do a really good job with literary authors, but the competition for them is fierce. But I digress again.

I'm glad N. was there because she spoke to what I always fear with a book like this. She had trouble liking the book because she didn't like the characters. Everybody was using, using, using, with probably the dual exceptions of Verdene, the older woman who is secretly sleeping with Margot, and Charles, the smart but uneducated boy, the brother of one of the prostitutes who connects with Thandi. And yes, this is a small town and so there are more connections than that.

So I threw this back to her. Say you were in this situation. You had very little. You're competing with everyone for what little you can get. What would you do to get money? An education for your family? The chance to leave? As S. said, "They made the best decisions they could." This quote I wrote down correctly.

It is interesting to note that about half of the attendees had been to Jamaica, but only one visitor had gone back, and two (not a couple) had cut their trips short. For some people, it's hard to relax when you're so close to poverty and violence, and it can be uncomfortable, at least for some, to see your privilege up close. But the ads keep coming - who can forget the advertising slogans? - and the hotels keep getting built, and the folks living there get pushed out of the way.

Some of the group had trouble with the patois, which is completely understandable. In a lot of books I've read, the dialect is heavier at the beginning of the book, but dials down as you read it, giving you the perception that you are getting immersed in the world. Dennis-Benn decided to keep it through the whole narrative, deciding only to have the narrator tell the story dialogue-free. In at least one interview, she talked about writing a book completely in patois. I probably should have made everyone tackle A Brief History of Seven Killings, which I thought was even heavier in patois. Here Comes the Sun, in comparison, would have seemed like a vacation.

At least one other attendee had a lot of troubles with the book. M. felt that not only did she not like the characters, but that they seemed too much like types to her. We had a spirited discussion about this, and to me, Margot, in particular, is really about as complex and not-before-seen character I've come across. For all the things she did that made me squirm - that scene where she sets up the manager is pretty much horrifying - I found her fascinating and understandable. Talk about anti-heroine.

G. particularly liked that Dennis-Benn highlighted the treatment of women and the cycle of abuse that comes about in society. We talked a lot about the various women and their motivations. To balance some complaints, I was actually surprised how much support their was for Delores, the mom. As J. noted, "If you met her at her stall, you would have loved her."

J. did note that the white people in the book were a bit cardboard, particularly Alphonso. It was really hard to figure out his motivations. But I think, through the eyes of Margot, that makes perfect sense. At the core, she knew how to use him, but I don't think she did understand him. And as a reader, it was hard to figure out why he was so awful. But how many of us ask this question about other people every day. And it wasn't his book.

Speaking of color, one subject that energized the discussion was that of color and shading. Many characters in the book is obsessed with skin tone, most notably Thandi, who is secretly using a potion (it's actually a creme, but potion sort of puts it better in perspective) to lighten her skin. This led me to recommend a book from Lori Tharps called Same Family, Different Color, which comes out in paperback on October 3. It's both a memoir and sociological study that looks at how not just African Americans, but all sorts of communities, including folks from India, Japan, Korea, and several South American countries subtly and sometimes unsubtly favor light skin tones over dark. I think it's really good book for a coordinator to read when discussing Here Comes the Sun, beyond the obvious background on Jamaica.

We really only touched on the LGBT themes of the story. Here Comes the Sun won a Lambda Literary Award (and a bucket of other accolades) and the relationship between Margot and Verdene is certainly one of the core relationships. We're well aware that Jamaica is not the easiest place to be gay, and everyone was pretty horrified by the community's treatment of Verdene, but of course there was not much to say beyond that. It's not unusual behavior - you attack the other to build up your own self-image, especially when you don't have much yourself. Who doesn't see this harnessed all the time in contemporary society?

I recently watched a show called Gaycation that looked at the plight of LGBT Jamaicans. You'll need to have a cable, satellite, or Hulu subscription to watch it. And of course you could also ask Marlon James next time you hear him speak or read. Here's an article in Out magazine where both James and Dennis-Benn talk about their experiences.

I actually got to hear a little about this first hand. I visited a friend of mine from college last year who helps gay male political refugees in DC. He gives them a place to stay, gives them guidance on job hunting, and helps them through the red tape. At the time, he was helping a Jamaican man, who had several horrible stories to tell of his life on the island. If he ever writes his memoir, you can use that book as background material to Here Comes the Sun too.

People always ask authors, "Who are you in this book?" and so many of them reply, "I am all of them!" In this case, note that like Thandi, Dennis-Benn has noted that she was originally working towards a career in the medical world before embracing writing, her true love. And like Verdene, Dennis-Benn left Jamaica but then returned. This spurred some discussion. Why did Verdene come back? In the author's case, she went back with her now wife to have a  wedding ceremony. According to Dennis-Benn, the Jamaican media had a field day with this.

By the way, A. was not able to attend, but we did learn he had 13 pages of notes. He apparently loved the book. Maybe we'll hear a bit more of his thoughts next month.

And finally there's L., who said, "I didn't enjoy reading it, but I'm glad I read it." Coincidentally enough, she's now reading Kamila Shamsie's Home Fire. They really are great books to read together, and I can't wait to talk to her about it. And now maybe we can get some momentum going on Here Comes the Sun, now that I can give it a staff rec.

On Monday, October 2, we're reading Michael Perry's Population 485. I'd love to read every Michael Perry book but he writes them faster than I can read them - Population 485 will be my fourth. In addition to Montaigne in Barn Boots, which I loved (pub date November 7, at Boswell November 14), he's also just had published Danger, Man Working: Writing from the Heart, the Gut, and the Poison Ivy Patch.

And then on Monday, November 6, we're reading Elizabeth J. Church's The Atomic Weight of Love, a novel about a scientist who gives up her career to be a housewife in Los Alamos, only to becomes obsessed with the behavior of crows. This was recommended to me by my new favorite birder, Nancy Quinn, at Schlitz Audubon Nature Center.

And since I already know, we're returning to the well of riches that is the okayafrica yearend booklist of 2016 for the third time. After reading Homegoing and Here Comes the Sun, we turn to Zadie Smith's Swing Time for our Monday, December 4 meeting. And don't forget, no registration is necessary for the In-Store Lit Group. Here's a list of our other upcoming Boswell-run book clubs.

Nicole Dennis-Benn photography credit: Jason Berger

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