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

Share
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: Accounts Assistant

£14500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for an experie...

Recruitment Genius: Canteen Manager Required

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join the UK's Frozen...

Recruitment Genius: Canteen Assistants Required

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join the UK's Frozen...

Recruitment Genius: Facilities & Operational Administrator

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting position has risen ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Two out of five marriages end in divorce but filling in the paperwork wrong can prove very costly  

Divorce is bad enough without the legal process around it making it so much worse

Simon Kelner
 

What Lord Myners tells us about the Royal Mail sell-off shows just how good the City is at looking after itself

Chris Blackhurst
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum