That is the first word that came to mind as I warily set down Cherie Jones' debut novel, "How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House," after its final and inevitable conclusion.
It's a book of many things: of the limits of romantic and familial love; of intergenerational legacy, certainly; but more than anything else it is a book about the devastating reach of patriarchy on the most vulnerable members of society. The sheer amount of physical violence wielded by men against women and children in the novel left me gasping, and, frankly, depressed, whenever I picked it up.
I expect art to reflect all parts of life — even the most painful — but there were times when the novel's portrayal of its Barbadian protagonists tilted more toward the nihilistic than the realistic.
Lala is a pregnant newlywed who lives with Adan, a violent petty thief whose recent robberies of the extravagant houses of rich British tourists have turned deadly. Adan frequently turns his proclivities toward Lala, who is badly beaten in several scenes. She alternates between accepting her fate, and plotting revenge and escape. The novel's portrayal of the psychology of battered women is masterful, and readers will intimately understand how trapped Lala really is. Tone, Adan's best friend and occasional crime partner, shares many secrets with Lala, which threaten to break the fragile balance of the relationships.
The main action of the story takes place in 1984 on Baxter's Beach, a playground for rich British tourists and the working-class Barbadians who care for their mansions, and sell them coconuts, trinkets, hair-braiding, and sex. Mira Whalen, an island girl made good by marriage to a wealthy British tourist, is also featured in this section, navigating the fallout of Adan's botched robbery attempt that has left her husband dead.
But there are other sections and voices, as well, most notably those of Esme, Lala's dead mother, and Wilma, her steadfast grandmother who raises her in her mother's absence. Wilma is the one who tells Lala the cautionary tale of the two beautiful sisters who were told by their loving parents to never go down to the tunnels that undergird Baxter's Beach, and where much seedy activity takes place. One daughter couldn't resist, however, and lost her arm to the treachery of monsters and men. Lala, of course, cannot resist, either, and neither could her mother. Thus, the title of the novel, and the complex legacy its main characters must navigate.
Toward the end, the narrator says of Lala: "She did not understand that for women of her lineage, a marriage meant a murder in one form or another." The plotting and intricate weaving of voices and timelines is powerful in moments, frustrating in others. I wanted to feel more like the story was unfolding on its own, rather than being manipulated by a very deft puppet master. In the same vein, I also wished that the women in the book were given at least a little agency in their lives, even if it wasn't enough to liberate them. Still, if you are looking for a story that explores power, bondage and freedom in the context of a small Caribbean community, "How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House" has many revelations.
Shannon Gibney is the author of the novels "See No Color" and "Dream Country," both of which won Minnesota Book Awards. Her new novel, "Botched," forthcoming from Dutton in 2022, explores themes of transracial adoption through speculative memoir.
How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House
By: Cherie Jones.
Publisher: Little, Brown, 288 pages, $27.