Books: Balmy days on an island of visions

Julie Wheelwright savours the luscious pleasures of a tempestuous family saga
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The Independent Culture
At the Full and

Change of the Moon

by Dionne Brand

Granta, pounds 14.99, 302pp

DIONNE BRAND'S luscious new novel features an Afro-Carribean Eve whose children leave Trinidad to travel all over the world, their lives weaving around one another in brilliant strands. Marie Ursule, the book's first mother, is a slave who foments a rebellion in 1824. When it fails, she prepares a poison from a native plant for an act of collective suicide. With her dying, she sees her descendants conjured up before her like a pageant.

The only ones to escape are Marie Ursule's three-year-old daughter, Bola, and her lover, Kamena, who search out ground where the Ursuline nuns' convent once stood. Bola lives on wild plants, sucking on stones and waiting for tidbits from her father on a crab- infested island. She has children by the men who travel through her Eden, and then farms them out or keeps them. Her fostered children might lose sight of her, but their own offspring are inexorably linked.

Cordelia, respectably married, suddenly discovers lust at the age of 53 after looking carefully at her body in a tall mirror. She gazes out the window and sees first the freezer repair man walk past and, then, a seamstress. When Cordelia's seams burst with longing, she rides the repair man on the kichen floor and plies the seamstress with rum. She even seduces a young boy addressing a revivalist meeting.

The boy, nicknamed Priest, is another of Bola's descendents who, fanning out from her silence, gain education and enter the gritty realism of modern immigrant life. Bola has "spread her children around so that they would never be gathered in the same place to come to the same harm". Children descended from Sayman, the child who fearfully traced Bola's footsteps in the sand, leave for North America in the 1970s. The most vulnerable are always brought back into the fold of this hard-loving, chaotic family.

Descending through the generations, Dionne Brand returns these children to their almost mythic beginnings. She is best known in Canada as a poet, and her prose pays sharp attention to detail, with sensual, often playful, descriptions. She injects a rhythm into her language and creates characters who burst with colour. This is a delicately structured, beautifully written novel, infused with rare emotional clarity.