The dark side of paradise, illuminated by a novel from Barbados
On the Shelf
How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House
By Cherie Jones
Little, Brown: 288 pages, $27
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Baxter Beach, the fictional Barbados setting of Cherie Jones’ first novel, is the kind of place an American might go to soak up sun and margaritas, maybe get a souvenir cornrow in their hair. In another book it would signal paradise, but not in “How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House,” which digs deep into the difficult lives of the often-invisible essential workers who make the tourist factory run.
Their struggles are about to become a little more visible. On Tuesday morning, Jones’ debut was announced as the “Good Morning America” Book Club selection for February, practically guaranteeing a vast audience for the story of a young pregnant woman named Lala, her violent husband, Adan, and their childhood friend Tone.
The trouble begins with a more fortunate islander, Mira, a mixed-race Barbadian woman married to a well-to-do British businessman. His shocking murder sets off a police investigation that inevitably comes down hard on Barbados’ servant class, already subject to generations of poverty and cycles of abuse.
Reached by phone at her home in St. Philip, Barbados, Jones says she drew in part on an abusive relationship in her own past. “Any woman, or person, who is in one of these relationships comes forward to tell their story slowly,” she notes. “When they do tell, it’s definitely after more than one incidence of abuse, usually after several. And the impetus to come forward is rarely personal safety. It’s often a reason outside of self. It’s usually because of a child.”
It is also part of “a sad cycle,” she adds. “I don’t want to generalize too much, but some older women in societies like ours grew up believing that women should accept and endure abuse.” Lala’s grandmother, Wilma, stands in for those women, who were taught that economic stability depended on marriage, even if the men they married hurt them and their children.
Jones, 47, is now an attorney and a single mother of four. She set “One-Armed Sister” in 1984, a time when tourist cornrows were a hot new trend. Lala actually loves braiding — loves carrying her mayonnaise jar of combs and bag of beads down the treacherous stairs of her house to the beach. After Adan objects to her occupation, Lala insists to herself: “You born to braid like he born to breathe.”
Jones deliberately set up Lala’s work as a counterpoint to Adan’s violence — a job that requires a soothing touch. “The novel has many hard things in it,” she says, but “there are tender moments too, and the times when one person demonstrates love or care with touch are important. When Lala first meets Tone, for example, she makes a salve, because he’s been injured.” A white man who rescues Lala at a climactic moment tends gently to her wounds.
There’s no direct connection between Jones’ work as an attorney and the private crimes she chronicles here. “These days, I work for a regulatory agency,” she says. “I do believe that my legal education and work help me to do something important for my writing, which is to question my characters and to ask questions about them. Adan is a cruel man, and in no way do I condone what he does — but in asking questions about him and his background, I was able to create a character who is human. I don’t believe in purely evil characters. Humans are complex, so characters should be.”
The novel weaves back and forth in time, illuminating Adan’s childhood and the changing mores of the island. In a powerful scene, he is denied a box meal from the town’s sole fast-food restaurant. “Burger Bee is really important, because it shows the slow encroachment of a different kind of society and system on the Barbadian way of life,” says Jones. “In many parts of the world, not just the United States, a place like McDonald’s is seen as a way of getting a cheap, fast meal. In Barbados, and in my book, a meal from Burger Bee is a treat, and not just for children.”
Though spending time with Adan, Jones focuses largely on the innocent, particularly in two scenes that were even harder to write than they are to read. First there is the death of a newborn. “I’ve dealt with my own pregnancy loss, so writing about an infant dying — that was rough. But the other chapter that was difficult to write, one that I’m really proud of, involves a scene in which [Lala] asks herself, ‘How do you love a man?’”
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That second scene takes place in a series of underground tunnels known only to islanders and used for a variety of shady activities. Did Jones consider the geographical strata of Barbados as well as the social and economic? “Absolutely,” she says. “And the spiritual and mythological too. We have our own versions of ‘the bogeyman,’ and those versions change over the years, just like our streets and buildings do.”
The novel’s title derives from a local folk tale about a beautiful young woman who was “own-way and like to give [her] mother mouth.” After she loses an arm through her own poor judgment, she is forced to sweep her house slowly and ineffectively, due to “what stupid get her.”
Grandmother Wilma tells it to Lila as a sort of warning, Jones says: “Wilma is tough, she expects her daughter and granddaughter to endure unimaginable abuse and suffering, partly because that is what she herself has done, partly because that is the expectation of the entire community.”
For Jones, whose first name is pronounced “Sherry,” the perfect vacation isn’t tropical at all. It’s a writer’s retreat in the American heartland. “Like Dairy Hollow in Arkansas: No doorbells, no dinners, no laundry,” she says, sighing a little with remembered pleasure. “That’s my idea of escape. There is no talking to other writers during the day … You don’t have to do anything but look out over the mountains and write.”
Jones is pursuing a PhD in creative writing while maintaining her day job, confident in her talents, if not necessarily her multitasking skills. “I’m never doing everything well,” she says. “When I finished my manuscript, I told my children, and they were completely uninterested. All they wanted to know was what’s for dinner, is it rice? When will you be taking us to the beach?”
Despite her passion for fiction — “if I didn’t write, I think I’d go a little bonkers” — what animates it is her hard-earned understanding of the darker realities of living day-to-day. She plans to maintain her job even as her writing brings her greater renown — and brings the shadow lives of those who toil in the trenches of paradise into the light.
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Patrick is a freelance critic who tweets @TheBookMaven.
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