Breathtaking debut set in Paradise, Underworld | lifestyle


Rarely is the first book that the writer has fully formed, the muscles and tendons of her sentences tight and tense, the voice clearly her own – think of Imbolo Mbue’s “See the Dreamers” or Casey Cep’s “Furious Hours”. But Cherie Jones’ lavish, cinematic debut “The One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House” rises to that high bar. Her bewitching title is a stepping stone into a Barbados that is both a Caribbean paradise and a criminal underworld. That means: The novel is madness.

“How the one-armed sister sweeps her house” is set mainly in the sultry summer of 1984 in Barbados. Eighteen-year-old Stella, known to everyone but her grandmother Wilma as Lala, is about to give birth to her first child. Her husband, Adan, a professional thief, is a “giant” of a man, all boastful. They live in a rickety stilt house on the outskirts of Baxter’s Beach, an affluent resort for foreign, mostly white tourists, an Eden where “you can watch the early morning swimmers take their cautious steps into the lilac-bathed water and orange sunrise tones … you can especially watch the women sit back and float, so that their silky strands of hair fan out around their heads. “

Jones’ memory of Barbados is exquisite as her brushwork assures, as it depicts pink sand and closed mansions, rundown hospitals and 24-hour shops. For income, Lala braids hair along the beach, alienated from Wilma, who sniffed the corruption on Adan and turned her face away. Adan manages to hover beyond the reach of the law; his anger drives the plot of the novel. These star-crossed lovers are not Romeo and Juliet, but neither are Bonnie and Clyde; They have been doomed to their fate by a society that falls prey to the poor. Jones detonates a couple of narrative grenades on the first few pages and ignites a story that is read in equal parts as a literary thriller and a nuanced exploration of race and class. This violence, like a mutated gene, continues from generation to generation.

“How the one-armed sister sweeps her house” – the title is derived from a warning thread that Wilma tells to convey the pitfalls of disobedience – could have turned into melodrama, but Jones is a far too accomplished writer who knows what to do Exits beautifully choreographed as she hits her story and diverts our attention the moment we think we have cracked her code. Through flashbacks, Jones cleverly expands the opening of the novel, adding other lives to her cast to include a widow who is ambivalent about her loss, a naughty prostitute who becomes the queen of herself in the clashes between possessions Saba names, and an investigator with his own secrets: “This policeman is a small black man who was built broad and soft by a well-meaning woman … Lala fixes her eyes … while he speaks what he says in the noses of children inhalation does the helium in balloons, a wailing beneath which a laugh waits that has nothing to do with humor. “The residents of Baxter’s Beach – white, black, rich, impoverished, stoic, haunted – may long for the better angels of their nature, but too often have they done business with the devil. And these deals inevitably lead to bloodshed. Jones won’t allow us to look away.

Murders, prostitution, child beatings: all lurk behind the shiny facade of Baxter’s Beach. Jones moves in and out of her scenes like elegant tracking shots, responding to the fears and desires of her characters and sprinkling a pinch of humor into the mix. She cannot withstand a satirical shock at the resort. “The whores who work behind the Holborn Hotel are largely aware of its many pretexts,” she writes. “For example, they know that the verdant green that spans the tiny walled garden where guests are invited to high tea is actually a carpet bought second-hand from the establishment that owns the national stadium has managed, and bristle is made of plastic. “

Jones’ prose is sleek, often voluptuous, but the structure of her novel is even more impressive as it moves after two mysterious crimes. The pieces snap together one after the other, revealing the consequences of postponed dreams. In Jones’s narrative, sin and redemption are both personal and communal. With his rich imagery, his self-confident pace and his moral vision, “How the one-armed sister sweeps her house” reads like a third or fourth book. Here is the start of an outstanding literary career.

“How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House,” Cherie Jones, 2021, Little, Brown, $ 27, 288 pages