BOOK REVIEW / Sevens above: the nightmare explodes: 'Swimming in the Volcano' - Bob Shacochis: Picador, 15.99 pounds

Related Topics
MAKE a dot in the sea; magnify it to a workable size; populate and outfit it. Is there anything more alluring to the world-builder than an island state, a tropical one at that? This one is called St Catherine, and it features beach bars, slums, an aid community, fishermen, government corruption and political rivalry, insanity, a retreat for decadent rock stars, and, of course, the symbolic volcano above it all. The date is 1977, the numerologically ominous year when, in the song of the Jamaican group Culture, the two sevens clashed.

The challenge of imagination lies not in drawing the map - such a scenario is, after all, within the creative range of a computer game designer - but rather in the restraint with which it is manipulated. Its patent instability has to be managed; its

dynamics must be understood in order to prevent it collapsing into chaos, to check the propensity of the novelist and his First World readers to shake their heads and walk away, murmuring: 'The horror]'

As if to check any such misgivings, Bob Shacochis opens with a set-piece that takes him headlong downhill into the narrative on a metaphor for the ability to modulate catastrophe, in this case a car wreck. Mitchell Wilson, a young agricultural economist from the States, is being driven to the airfield by his local friend Isaac Knowles, in one of those First World vehicles that have been turned native by the organic erosion and infiltration of Third World maintenance. The brakes go at the top of the

hill because coconut oil has been substituted for brake fluid: there follows a bravura descent, meticulously punctuated by gear shifts and progressive component failures, interwoven with the more fluent crisis of human emotions.

The car is written off, but both occupants escape with minor injuries. Shacochis has proved that he is a writer of impressive ability and judgement, his approach shaped by a fundamental respect for his subject matter.

The atmosphere always seems too threatening for mockery. At the airfield, slightly impeded by a fire, which spreads to the fire engine itself, Wilson has a rendezvous with a loosely hinged ex-girlfriend who has decided to descend upon him. Johnny isa girl with secrets, mostly narcotics-related. Fatally, she has acquired a husband with some sort of Cuban connection, to the concern of the St Catherine authorities.

The coalition government is split between the corrupt bourgeoisie and the cold young radicals. Enemies are being invented to justify security sweeps. It is Isaac Knowles's misfortune, first, to have been the son of a nationalist martyr and, second,to have hit the car of a minister's wife on the way down the hill, leading him into the embrace of the St Catherine police. The frame for Wilson takes a little longer to prepare. In the end, he is betrayed by the politician in whose idealism he had placed his faith, and whose supporters are paving the roads of the island with good intentions.

The resemblance to Grenada is acknowledged. In one sense, we know the story already. But its power lies mainly in Shacochis's fervently committed writing, always pushing its limits, always wresting more colour and contrast from its imagery. This is a novel that lives up to its ambitions and operates on a heroic scale.

Its touch falters here and there. Shacochis is at liberty to invent a West Indian dialect for the island, but he has a rotten ear for the decadent English rock stars who get a cameo in one drug-sodden scene. There is also a structural limitation: the point of view is that of the white observer who, however distressed, is always a transient.

But it would be pretty remarkable not to come across the odd dud passage in 500 pages, particularly given the writer's need to co-ordinate a large and varied menagerie of characters. And the criterion for judging writing like this is not what vantage point is available to the author, but what he does with his position. In that light, the least credible thing about Swimming in the Volcano is that it is Bob Shacochis's first novel.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Clinical Lead / RGN

£40000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: IT Sales Consultant

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company has a n...

Recruitment Genius: Works Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A works engineer is required in a progressive ...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Hire Manager - Tool Hire

£21000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client is seeking someone w...

Day In a Page

Read Next

I don't blame parents who move to get their child into a good school

Chris Blackhurst
William Hague, addresses delegates at the Conservative party conference for the last time in his political career in Birmingham  

It’s only natural for politicians like William Hague to end up as journalists

Simon Kelner
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent
Markus Persson: If being that rich is so bad, why not just give it all away?

That's a bit rich

The billionaire inventor of computer game Minecraft says he is bored, lonely and isolated by his vast wealth. If it’s that bad, says Simon Kelner, why not just give it all away?
Euro 2016: Chris Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

Wales last qualified for major tournament in 1958 but after several near misses the current crop can book place at Euro 2016 and end all the indifference
Rugby World Cup 2015: The tournament's forgotten XV

Forgotten XV of the rugby World Cup

Now the squads are out, Chris Hewett picks a side of stars who missed the cut
A groundbreaking study of 'Britain's Atlantis' long buried at the bottom of the North Sea could revolutionise how we see our prehistoric past

Britain's Atlantis

Scientific study beneath North Sea could revolutionise how we see the past
The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember,' says Starkey

The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember'

David Starkey's assessment
Oliver Sacks said his life has been 'an enormous privilege and adventure'

'An enormous privilege and adventure'

Oliver Sacks writing about his life
'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

The Rock's Chief Minister hits back at Spanish government's 'lies'