By Peter Laurie | Sun, November 04, 2012 - 12:01 AM
Cynthia Wilson has given Caribbean readers a gem of a gift.
One of the hardest things to do when writing fiction is to find the right tone and keep it throughout. Cynthia has managed this to perfection in her new work Listen To The Hills. Not a false note.
This is a “fictionalized” memoir of two years in the life of a Barbadian young woman, Cyrilene Sargeant, who has just left school to go to the University of the West Indies Mona Campus on a scholarship.
The tone of Cyrilene’s narration is one of delicate irony and wry humour. Think Frank Collymore crossed with V.S. Naipaul: a fine piece of writing.
This memoir captures with a clear-eyed nostalgia free of sentimentality the feel of life in the Caribbean in the late 1950s/early ’60s: the dress styles (a lot of exquisite period detail); the food (sop biscuits and bub); and music, including Jamaican mento and rock ’n’ roll.
Cyrilene, fresh out of Queen’s College, sets off from Barbados for Jamaica via Trinidad: a very practical idealist out to conquer the world.
You can’t help loving and, at the same time, being infuriated by the self-confident Cyrilene as she embarks on the journey of adult life, fending off a vast variety of men who either want to have sex with her, marry her or, worse still, both. For Cyrilene has her own plans and her own moral compass. Or, more accurately, two moral compasses: her mother and the wind.
Cyrilene, in Jamaica, begins to wonder whether, according to the West African Orisha, she is a child of Oya, the wind.
“And if that might not be the reason why, when my mother called, I had to go.”
“The wind?” he repeated, “how is that possible?”
“Well, when it blows in a certain way, it pulls me out of my room and takes me to the Hope riverbed where I stay until it stops blowing in that way. It is something over which I have no control; when the wind calls me, I have to go.”
“And if the wind calls when you have to work?” he inquired.
“The wind and I will have to work out some sort of compromise, I told him.”
A gripping episode is her attendance at a Shango ritual dance, while visiting her cousins in Trinidad. There she loses control to the rhythm of the drums: “All of a sudden, I felt the music lift me from where I was sitting on the earthen floor and project me into the circle of dancers . . . . It was as if something inside me had taken over and was moving my body. Then I lost contact with everything around me and sailed through the sky borne on a very strong wind.”
She emerges a better person.
But the overwhelming influence on Cyrilene is her mother. Indeed, in one sense the memoir is about her mother, a commanding, loving presence throughout. I don’t know whether this was the author’s intention; but authors’ intentions are of two kinds: the conscious and the unconscious.
Just to give you a flavour:
• “I reminded him [her brother] of Ma’s warning to be careful of whom you let feed you or wash your clothes.”
• “I longed for Ma and a good bunch of stinking missybush.”
• “Since we never argued with Ma’s reports of her conversations with ‘her God’ that ended the conversation.”
• “Looking at her, I saw that she had her ‘I-am-merely-the-mouthpiece-of-my-God’ look, so I knew it was best to keep my mouth shut and find something else to do, preferably out of her presence.”
The memoir also captures the joys and frustrations of growing up in a large family, the complex ironies of race in the Caribbean, and the wonder and innocence of a young woman exploring her way to maturity.
Cynthia Wilson, née Alleyne, comes from one of Barbados’ most distinguished and talented families. In Listen To The Hills she has created a minor masterpiece of Caribbean literature. The book will be launched on November 10.
• Peter Laurie is a retired diplomat and commentator on social issues. Email firstname.lastname@example.org
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