From Maryse Condé to Edwidge Danticat to Tiphanie Yanique, contemporary Caribbean writers have produced an exquisite literature of diaspora and affirmation, richly depicting the dreams and disappointments of their characters. Now Naomi Jackson joins their ranks with “The Star Side of Bird Hill,” a serious yet effervescent debut that showcases three generations of women as they grapple with conflict and loss during the fateful summer of 1989.
Dionne and Phaedra, 16 and 10, escape their mother Avril’s scarring depression when they leave Brooklyn for their native Barbados. Under the watchful eye of their enigmatic and wise grandmother, Hyacinth, the girls explore Bird Hill, an enclave of devout wives, feckless men, mischievous children and all manner of temptations. Both struggle with the ache of their mother’s absence but cope differently: Phaedra seeks solace in Hyacinth’s customs and folklore while Dionne withdraws into a surly shell, occasionally lashing out.
Dionne is the better-drawn of the two sisters, flaunting her sexuality, toughened by the burdens that weigh on her but yearning to salve her psychic wounds: “The danger was not in loving something too much, Dionne thought, but in loving anything more than what you could carry in your pocket or on your back. Dionne had learned to make the objects of her affection small — designer jeans, a certain kind of pencil whose eraser released a scent when you used it, a new lipstick.”
“The Star Side of Bird Hill” meanders languidly through its first half but picks up with news of Avril’s suicide and the subsequent appearance of the girls’ father, Errol, who intends to take them to Florida. As the drama builds to an inevitable tragedy and reconciliation, Jackson brings the lush textures of Barbados to the fore: sugar cane fields and smelly fish markets, raucous festivals and an extended wake called “nine-nights.”
With the approach of winter, the two sisters embrace the island as their home, finding their place in the constellation of women who pass along secrets of forbearance through song and story, as in this church scene: “The women joined in, a fiery bellowing of low notes, their altos and Ms. Zelma’s tenor filling the church hall so that soon it was packed to its rafters with sound. … When Mrs. Jeremiah felt the air begin to settle, she slowed down the hallelujahs and brought them to a close. The women sat together in the buzzing quiet, some whispering ‘Amen’ and other sounds of assent, some dabbing their brows and necks, all retreating into the private place where their own dead were with them.”
More than a coming-of-age novel, “The Star Side of Bird Hill” evokes the intractable forces that tear at families and cultures.
Hamilton Cain is the author of “This Boy’s Faith: Notes From a Southern Baptist Upbringing.” He lives in Brooklyn.