Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn
|Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn|
|Category: Literary Fiction|
|Reviewer: Phil Lewis|
|Summary: A dark, immersive vision of a Jamaica rarely seen. Don't be fooled by the colourful cover - this is an angry, disturbing portrait of a world falling apart.|
|Buy? Maybe||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 352||Date: March 2017|
|Publisher: Oneworld Publications|
|External links: Author's website|
You have to assume the team behind the cover sleeve for Nicole Dennis-Benn's debut novel Here Comes the Sun have a keen sense of irony. Either that or none of them read beyond the first page.
Seeing as judging a book by its cover is a keen pursuit of the holiday reader, selling this book on the sun, sand and rum punch Jamaican stereotype is a sure-fire way to ruin many an afternoon on the sun-lounger.
That said, you don't have to read very far to realise this isn't your average beach read. On the second page we hear in graphic detail how our anti-hero (and that's a stretch) Margot provides… extra services to foreign guests at a five star luxury hotel, all in the name of making payments on her younger sister Thandi's prestigious school.
The pair's mother, Dolores, is a tyrannical street stall owner laced with a combination of psychopathy and greed that would equip her well on shows like The Apprentice. Unlikely to win mother of the year, Dolores has long blotted her copybook by selling a 14-year-old Margot (now a bitter 30-year-old) to an insalubrious tourist for an afternoon. Familial relationships are, perhaps understandably, strained.
Add to this Verdene, Margot's elegant and sophisticated lesbian lover in whose garden homophobic locals dump dog carcasses; Thandi and her obsession with bleaching her skin; Margot's Walter White-esque progression from call-girl to full blown boss lady pimp, as well as Benn's razor sharp anger at inequalities rife in her homeland, and you begin to get a flavour of how far from a beach read this book is.
There are points when it's tempting to think the author's taken too much on. She's obviously (and probably rightly) incredibly angry about the displacement of Jamaican locals – homes being bulldozed and communities destroyed to make way for luxury tourist resorts. At the same time she's equally as angry about homophobia and intolerance within those same communities. There's so much going on here that it's sometimes at risk of moralising and prescriptive passages. Benn is not afraid to tell, rather than show.
What this book does do well is create a real tangible sense of Jamaica. It transports you to Montego Bay, all dry dusty and drought-ridden. The dialogue, much of which is onomatopoeic patwa, really flies off the page. It's not a romantic portrayal – this is a Jamaica riddled with insecurity, self-hatred and jealousy: the evangelical Christian who plants scotch bonnet chillies in her garden and daubs religious slogans in goat's blood; the child-rapist seen by the town as an amusing drunk; Miss Ruby who makes a living bleaching skin; the casual patriarchy within the revered hotel where prostitution is the norm.
A lot of reviews are focusing on Margot - how there are no easy answers to her character, how she is neither good nor bad but merely a product of her upbringing and environment. She says it herself – you either swim or you drown. Margot's a survivor, a striver even, but at the cost of how many girls getting sucked in to her prostitution ring? She doesn't seem to care very much.
This isn't a perfect novel. There are points where the various plotlines become unwieldy, and there's some clunky language that can feel a bit heavy-handed.
It's definitely ambitious however, and for the most part it does succeed in shining a light on the dark under-belly of this would be paradise. The characters will live long in my imagination, particularly Thandi, whose future I hope holds brighter prospects than her past.
I do think Nicole Dennis-Benn is a name to watch, as with some tightening up she could definitely produce something quite special. One thing's for sure – it won't be a beach read.
Further reading suggestion: White Teeth by Zadie Smith
You can read more book reviews or buy Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn at Amazon.co.uk
You can read more book reviews or buy Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn at Amazon.com.
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