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