Books: The road out of Paradise

Rachel Halliburton enjoys an epic voyage back to Africa
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Duppy Conqueror

by Ferdinand Dennis

Flamingo, pounds 16.99, 346pp

DUPPY CONQUEROR presents a giant's eye view of the exiled African psyche. An ambitious and compelling novel, it takes vast strides through the mystic paradise of Jamaica in the Thirties, the racially fraught underworlds of postwar Liverpool and London, and the defunct utopianism of African repatriation plans in the Sixties.

This potent analysis of the legacy left by slavery asks questions about the survival of African identity through a story that ranges from voodoo curses to gambling contests, from love stories to political polemic. Ferdinand Dennis examines how the past has marked Africans, both as the grounds for their oppression and the inspiration for their dreams.

Although the book has epic ambitions, it does not feel an epic read. Dennis drives it along through a narrative bubbling with eccentric characters and poetic descriptions. And he chooses an unassuming character to bear the weight of his investigations into 20th-century Africanness.

Marshall Sarjeant is exiled from Paradise, Jamaica, in order to conquer the curse that has plagued his family since the 19th century. The curse, which manifests itself in deformities, originates when Marshall's ancestor - the plantation owner Neal Sarjeant - enrages his witchlike, childless wife, Sybil, by making his slave Nana pregnant. Sybil buries his fortune with an evil spirit before returning to commit suicide by sending the house up in flames. On this pyre, she curses Neal and all his "nigger children".

Marshall's odyssey from Paradise to Kinjaia - a fictitious African state - reveals the jostle of African voices that Dennis unearthed when exploring Afro-Britain for the radio series that inspired his book, Behind the Frontlines. It is a mark of the novel's skilled complexity that the story hums along self-sufficiently, but readers aware of Dennis's concerns will see, for instance, that Marshall's time in Liverpool provokes deeper discussions about the city's role as a leading slave-trading port. Meanwhile, the involvement of Marshall and his guide Pharaoh Sarjeant in back-to-Africa movements refers to Marcus Garvey, the Rastafarian hero, and the Liberian repatriation movement he led between the wars.

Inevitably, emerges as a novel about languages of power and their subtext of corruption. Marshall, the stoic hero, is forced to negotiate a careful path through the mysticism, revolutionary polemics and conflicting iconographies that have fought for control of African identity. Dennis's talent lies in fusing these languages by making seemingly minor incidents climax in events of wide importance. An African pulling a flick-knife on his racist landlord prefigures the mass activism of the Pan-Africanist movement; and a creation myth about the love of a fish for a bird illustrates the difficulties of fighting for freedom.

This is a novel packed to the brim with layers of symbolism, individual and cultural memories, and fascinating historical stories. Reading it once just won't be enough.