Land of Love and Drowning
by Tiphanie Yanique
Riverhead Books, $27.95
Publishes July 10, 2014
The Book We're Talking About is a weekly review combining plot description and analysis with fun tidbits about the book.
What we think:
One of the last sections of Tiphanie Yanique’s Land of Love and Drowning begins with an epigraph from Derek Walcott. She explains in her Author’s Note that it is his full response to the question “What makes Caribbean literature unique?” Walcott’s succinct reply: “It may seem so simple to say that it is sea. But it is the sea” -- an apt epigraph for a Caribbean epic awash in sea and sand and island air.
The ocean laps through Yanique’s intergenerational epic, infusing it with a sense of magic only compounded by the magical realism elements. The story -- roughly based on Yanique’s own family’s history -- unfolds on breezy beaches, during salty night swims, and in seaside towns over the course of three twisted, troubled generations.
When Captain Owen Arthur Bradshaw drowns in a shipwreck off Anegada, just after the Virgin Islands became American territory, he leaves behind a too-beloved teenage daughter, her redhaired younger sister, and an unacknowledged son with the local Obeah woman. As the decades pass, the three siblings struggle to find stability and fulfillment in a small world, circumscribed by the shores of their islands, where so much is repressed and hidden.
Unable to discern their true relationships to each other, and to those who came before them, the three are even less able to understand the eerie happenings that mark them apart from normal families. Meanwhile, their own children arrive, into a tumultuous and rapidly modernizing island world, as the Virgin Islands lurch irrevocably and uncomfortably into postwar American society, with all the TV news and acquisitive white tourists and civil rights activism that implies. Their children feel the lure of the American mainland and culture, but neither are they free from their family’s supernatural strain and the tie to the islands it seems to signify.
To tell this tale, Yanique switches between several narrators -- proper Eona, the ravishing eldest daughter who has been denied her birthright; openhearted Anette, who never knew her parents and longs for a man to give her a family; occasionally Jacob, their secret half-brother; and a third-person narrative that at times feels more like a collective St. Thomas voice. Anette and Eona’s voices vibrate with humanity, allowing the reader to slip easily into their different but deeply intertwined consciousnesses. But the omniscient narration sometimes feels more like a stopgap, with uneven prose and occasionally forceful theme explication. Though Yanique often successfully evokes the blue-green clarity of the sea in her luminous, sun-dappled prose, at other times she seems to be striving too hard to evoke it. Characters are described as “streaming” from the room unfortunately often.
These awkward moments don’t prevent Land of Love and Drowning from painting a vivid, almost hyper-real world, or from weaving a compelling story. Though rough at points, Yanique's debut novel bursts with imagination and intoxicating atmosphere, and the deeply felt characters at its heart demand to be heard.
What other reviewers think:
Kirkus: "Bubbling with talent and ambition, this novel is a head-spinning Caribbean cocktail."
Publishers Weekly: "Through the voices and lives of its native people, Yanique offers an affecting narrative of the Virgin Islands that pulses with life, vitality, and a haunting evocation of place."
Who wrote it?
Tiphanie Yanique, who is from St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, was named one of the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” in 2011. Her short story collection, How to Escape from a Leper Colony, was published in 2010. Land of Love and Drowning is her first novel.
Who will read it?
Lovers of magical realism and sweeping family sagas. Also, readers who gravitate to tropical, seaside settings.
“Owen Arthur Bradshaw watched as the little girl was tied up with lace and silk. He jostled the warm rum in his glass and listened to the wind.”
“I pitch myself into the flat and close the door. I lean against the door and believe I could feel it pulsing. Like the building have an ocean waving through it.
“This too wild and fast to be love. But it is. Like in the movies, only for real. These things happen, I telling you. Not always with songs playing, except for the one singing in your own skin. People can need each other like water.”
Rating, out of ten:
7. Land of Love and Drowning, though uneven, offers a thoughtful blend of magical realism as intoxicating as the “rum and Coca Cola” sung about throughout.