The Pirate's Daughter, by Margaret Cezair-Thompson

What might have been when a rake came ashore
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

It is 1946. A hurricane blows the yacht Zaca off-course and shipwrecks its skipper, the swashbuckling movie star Errol Flynn, near the Jamaican town of Port Antonio. He is jaded, and fleeing a decaying marriage and charges of statutory rape. Desperate for a refuge, he is instantly captivated by the island's wild beauty. In its turn, Jamaica is besotted with Flynn: his arrival provokes hysteria, lurid media headlines ("Flynn Fans Fracas!") and fainting women. Concluding that the island is his spiritual home, the actor decides to purchase a property there.

So far so true, but this is just a launch pad from which the Jamaican-born writer, Margaret Cezair-Thompson, creates a wonderful confection in which Flynn becomes enmeshed in island life. He befriends a local Justice of the Peace whose 13-year-old daughter, Ida, develops a breathless crush on "the Handsomest Man in The World". To her fury, he treats her like a kid... until she turns 16.

It is the offspring of their brief and ill-fated liaison, May, who then hijacks the narrative. The pirate's daughter of the title, she resembles Flynn physically and in personality. Headstrong, adventurous, sensual, she lives with the same reckless confusion as her reluctant parent. Her struggles dominate the book as she attempts to survive her illegitimate status and racial confusion (she appears white but is mixed race), as well as the tumultuous fluctuations of Jamaican history. (She will have a special ring of authenticity for Jamaican readers, since lore has long claimed that Flynn left a legion of illegitimate children there.)

If the celebrity hook for this novel is Flynn, it is Jamaica that steals the show. The author, now based in the US, writes with the evocative intensity of nostalgic exile. We travel to the cloud-shrouded Blue Mountains, where the renowned coffee is produced, across to the nervy urbanity of the capital, Kingston, and back to the legendary Blue Hole, the crater of an ancient volcano, where Flynn disastrously tried to make a movie. Cezair-Thompson lovingly describes the island's beaches with their white sand lined with vibrant casurina, purple Otaheite apples and vegetation so lush that in some places the soil isn't visible. Her descriptions of food – steaming calaloo soup, spicy jerk pork, fluffy rice and peas – make the mouth water.

The island's political history is intelligently and subtly interwoven. Beginning just after the Second World War, the author takes us through its development: the first stirrings of nationalism, the achievement of independence, the impact of the Bay of Pigs, the decaying political situation and violence of the Seventies. Against this febrile backdrop, the author's large cast of characters unfolds convincingly. It includes both real historical figures, such as Noël Coward and Marilyn Monroe, and fictional characters, poor Jamaicans whose exploits are as outrageous as their famous visitors.

The book helps to correct the view propagated by those, such as VS Naipaul, who claim that Caribbean islands have no history. Instead, Cezair-Thompson presents an island almost crushed by the weight of its long and tortured past. Throughout, we are reminded of the exterminated Amerindians who first inhabited the island, the lawless pirates and buccaneers who used it as a refuge, the violent and torrid story of settlement and slavery. No wonder the Flynn character concludes: "Such a small place, and so much history."

Far from describing a dull, static society, the author vividly demonstrates how exciting and eventful small places like Jamaica can be, where black and white, and rich and poor, live together in intense proximity. It is this, more than anything else, that makes this novel such a success. It isn't flawless – the prologue, for example, is confusing and redundant – but the breathtaking pace and verve of The Pirate's Daughter make it a delight; a touch of summer reading in a grim winter.

Headline Review £19.99 (512pp) £17.99 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897