Black Rock by Amanda Smyth

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Black Rock by Amanda Smyth

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Category: Women's Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Trish Simpson-Davis
Reviewed by Trish Simpson-Davis
Summary: An evocative coming-of-age novel set on Trinidad in the sixties. Celia runs away from her abusive uncle, but finds herself on a destructive path as she discovers who she really is. If you liked Girl with a Pearl Earring, I think you might enjoy Black Rock.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 256 Date: February 2009
Publisher: Serpent's Tail
ISBN: 978-1846686962

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Black Rock is set in post-Second World War Trinidad; I guess the early sixties when the islands were newly independent of Britain. In those days it was cool to watch American films like South Pacific or Ben Hur. Ex-pats were treated with uncritical respect by their loyal servants. Reggae, that raucous, enthusiastic symbol of black pride wasn't yet spilling out from everything on wheels. I particularly enjoyed the loving detail of island life and the clever way new novelist Amanda Smyth caught the lilting rhythm of Trinidadian speech to authenticate her setting.

Celia, the heroine, tells her story in the first person. We know that Celia is beautiful, but little else about her appearance. Celia lives on the adjoining island of Tobago with her twin cousins, Aunt Tassi, and Tassi's loathsome second husband, Roman Bartholemew. It's obvious from the beginning of the novel that Celia doesn't fit comfortably within the family. Her white father returned to Southampton long ago, while her Black Caribbean mother died after giving birth to her, and Celia feels an outsider.

In the early pages of the novel, a local wise woman predicts a hard life for Celia. The man she loves will break her heart, and she will destroy the life of the man who loves her.

At sixteen, just as Celia matures, Roman takes advantage of his position in the family to abuse her. He is still sexually active with Tassi, and Celia is unable to communicate her distress and injury to her aunt. In desperation, she leaves Tobago for Trinidad, where her other aunt, Sula, lives on a plantation. I wasn't sickened by the rape scene as I'd expected, which really started me thinking.

Trinidad, though a larger island, is still parochial. Arriving with yellow fever, Celia is befriended by William and his family, who nurse her back to health before finding her work as a nanny with a local doctor. The ensuing story isn't unusual, but, as so often happens, local gossip condemns Celia. I felt that Celia's treatment would have been partly based on the colour of her skin, and I was interested to find out how Trinidad stood in those days. I felt the whole issue of colour was fundamental to the way the characters interrelated and was sorry it remained in the background.

Celia's undeclared rape has brutalized her and on occasion, she behaves quite meanly towards her wellwishers. As Mrs Jeremiah says, You don't care what happen to get what you want. It don't matter to you... Celia tells her story unemotionally, with little regard for others' feelings. It's a brave move to develop a disagreeable heroine, particularly when the story focuses so strongly on her thoughts and actions. Skillfully drawn as they are, none of the more decent characters in the story upstage her.

It's only when Celia can draw parallels between her own life and her mother's that she feels emotion once more. At the end of the novel, events allow us to see the green shoots of maturity peeping through.

This book raises wider questions. What is the emotional impact of sexual abuse if the victim closes in on herself, rather than accessing help? Second, how do woman see their sexual experiences? Celia finds out that it's all about feelings.

'Black Rock' has grown on me, and I think it might make for some good discussion in book groups.

Thanks to the Serpents Tail for sending a copy to the Bookbag.

If you're interested in the serious issues arising from this book, Alice Sebold tells her own story in Lucky. If you need a dip into feel-good instead, a book I reviewed recently with gorgeous atmospheric writing about (Tahitian) island life is The Marriage Proposal by Celestine Hitiura Vaite. We've also enjoyed A Kind of Eden by Amanda Smyth.

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