Books: Sexy Marilyn and all them boys

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Buxton Spice

by Oonya Kempadoo Phoenix pounds 12.99

T his first novel makes Kempadoo a name to watch alongside established Caribbean writers such as David Dabydeen and Pauline Melville. Set in Guyana in the 1970s, tells of a rite of passage in which the narrator's transition from girlhood is bound up with the political disruption that followed Guyanan Independence from British rule. Kempadoo embraces the vernacular. The narrator's voice draws the reader in so close it's as if young Lula is leading you by the hand around her domain, sharing triumph at the size of pee holes she and her friends can make in the dirt, trying to make sense of spying on "Sexy Marilyn" in the darkened schoolroom with "all them boys", "she sounding like it nice, they fighting up. Grunting and panicking, grabbing with sweaty hands."

Tamarind Grove, their coastal village, reflects the country's conflicted colonial history. We visit Portuguese neighbour Mrs DeAbro who is "not even local white" but "only Putagee" yet considers herself above "de commoners", particularly the "black-blacks". We travel to a derelict Hindu temple and over Dutch irrigation systems where, lying on a one-plank bridge, we watch the Hassar catfish: "Brown and milky like the water. Flexing their thick bodies, side to side, following their wide flat mouths."

Urgency is still anathema to Lula at this stage. Her child's sense of time as endless gives the plot a luxuriously meandering feel. Despite this the novel remains compelling. Lula's grip on the reader tightens as she grows older and more fearful. The military presence is increasingly corrupt. Basic foodstuffs must be queued for at the Co-op at gunpoint. The things we see get more violent: murders, lynchings, race riots.

Derek Walcott, addressing his St Lucian ancestors - slaves and slave- owners - says: "exiled from your own Edens, you have placed me in the wonder of another" and for this he gives "strange and bitter yet ennobling thanks". Initially, Kempadoo presents an alluring Guyana, with Lula as an innocent in a lush, steamy paradise. Scenes of sexual awakening - playing husbands and wives with her friend Judy; lying in the bath under a dripping tap - are written with a mixture of lyricism and humour. But ultimately the author's view is bleak. In a community of dispossessed, in which most people are alienated from themselves and from each other, how, asks, can there ever be a hope of cohesion?