Faber & Faber £14.99 (370pp) £13.49 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop : 0870 079 8897; Atlantic £15.99 (280pp) £14.39 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop : 0870 079 8897

The Dead Yard, By Ian Thomson
From Harvey River, By Lornia Goodison

For many years, Jamaica was the undisputed star of the Anglophone Caribbean. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, when "sugar was king", its economic importance to Britain was only rivalled by that of India. Rich in natural resources, breathtakingly beautiful, Jamaica was dubbed the island "most likely to succeed" after colonialism. Then it all went wrong. Two new books, with contrasting perspectives, explore the country that has become the cautionary tale of the Caribbean.

At the beginning of The Dead Yard, an elderly white Jamaican woman asks, "Do we really need another book on Jamaica? You visitors are always getting it wrong. Either it's golden beaches or it's guns, guns, guns. Is there nothing in between?" It is a valid complaint. Innumerable English travellers have drawn portraits of Jamaica that reveal more about their colonial prejudices than about life on the island.

Ian Thomson works hard not to fall into this trap and largely succeeds. Rather than taking the easy path of interviewing a few people beside his hotel pool, he braves lamentable public transport to reach parts of the country, such as the blood-soaked ghetto of Trenchtown, that most locals would do anything to avoid. Anyone familiar with the Jamaican scene will be impressed with the variety of his contacts. Through his encounters with gunmen and government officials, musicians and missionaries, Thomson meticulously builds a genuinely insightful picture of how the island has evolved.

Marx wrote that "Jamaican history is characteristic of the beastliness of the true Englishman"; and venality and brutality have characterised British dealings with the island. After decimating its indigenous Amerindian population, early English settlers transported their own countrymen – often forcibly - to toil and die as white indentured servants, only to replace them by African slaves who were treated even more terribly. "Violence was central to the system of slavery," concludes Thomson, "and the spirit of this violence continues to haunt modern Jamaica".

He is undoubtedly correct. Jamaica is one of the most violent countries in the world, a record fuelled by poverty, drugs and political strife. It has other problems: the island is still largely controlled by the white and brown descendants of the plantocracy, and many black Jamaicans have internalised a poisonous self-hatred, evidenced by the widespread use of skin bleach.

Jamaica has the one of the highest illiteracy rates in the region, eight out of ten children are born out of wedlock, and homophobia is rife. Public services are poor and corruption is endemic.

Thomson rightly ascribes much of the island's troubles to its former colonial masters. "Having shaped Jamaica's past for ill," he writes, "Britain had not helped shaped the future for good." Instead, it has "abandoned" the island to the US, which has in turn made mischief by funding and arming the political factionalism that continues to tear it apart. But, as Thomson points out, Jamaicans must take some blame for their country's "bottomless decline". The wealthy and educated, largely cocooned from the worst of the violence, are too busy ripping off the country to make much-needed reforms.

But there are points where I take issue with Thomson. His observation that Jamaica has "no religion or civilization of its own" is a rather Naipaulian perspective on Caribbean life that I find both offensive and inaccurate. This lack of insight is a product of the book's greater flaw, which is the author's inability to grasp the interiority of Jamaican life in all its vibrancy and warmth and pathos. The reader of The Dead Yard is left with an astute understanding of what ails the island but very little sense of what it feels like to be a Jamaican.

The poet Lorna Goodison's unabashedly nostalgic memoir of "my mother and her island" provides something of a corrective. The book divides into two sections, the first set in rural Jamaica in the 1900s, the second documenting the family's life in "hard scrabble" Kingston, where they are forced to move after a financial reversal. These contrasting worlds are conjured up in a heady mixture of Jamaican patois and intensely vivid language.

A baby emerges into the world "looking like a chubby Hindu goddess made from milk chocolate". The stone in an opal ring reminds one character of "her mother's left eye when a spark leapt from the fire on which the workers were boiling sugar and put out the life in it, leaving a white cloud over the pupil for the rest of her life".

Interweaving her family's story with Jamaican history and mythology, Goodison creates a picture a world away from the "guns, guns, guns" image of island life. It is a world complete unto itself, with its own rhythms, sayings, beliefs and folklore.

The mouths of newborn babies are rubbed with sugar, "back and forth, over and under the small tongue to anoint the child with the gift of sweet speech". Attractive men are described by a seemingly endless variety of nicknames: "a sweet boy, a boonoonoos boy, a face man, eye-candy man, pretty-like-money, nice-like-a-pound-of-rice man".

From Harvey River is not flawless: some might find the lightning shifts in viewpoint confusing, others may consider the bouillabaise of its language a bit rich for their tastes. But the book is a joy, nonetheless; a bittersweet reminder to all Jamaica's exiles of what we have lost.

Andrea Stuart's 'Josephine: the Rose of Martinique' is published by Pan

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam