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Bruised Hibiscus, by Elizabeth Nunez.

May 24, 2012

Bruised hibiscus , by Elizabeth Nunez. Seattle, WA: Seal Press, 2000.

An exciting Caribbean novel filled with the complexities of colonization and patterns of dominance as they are experienced in the lives of individual men and women.

Elizabeth Nunez writes of life on her home island of Trinidad, as she does in Prospero’s Daughter. This novel, however, has a larger cast of characters. The narrative alternates between two women and the men who abuse them and other happenings on the island. External events crash on private lives. Where Prospro’s Daughter is tight and elegant, Bruised Hibiscus sprawls, exposing a variety unresolved issues. Both books reveal just how good an author Nunez is, showing her concern for personalizing the meaning of colonization and her ability to create characters we care about.

Two women endure abusive husbands. Despite their differences, they had been close friends for a brief time as children, and when they meet again as adult they are able to share their troubles. Rosa, the daughter of the plantation overseer, is married to a black teacher. Zeula, taken as a child from a Venzulaen village, is the wife of a Chinese merchant. When another woman is killed, they both face new challenges as they cope with increased anger from their husbands and their own rising anger against them. Rosa’s old nurse, Mary Christophe, is there for both women, a substitute for the mothers neither had. Ultimately, she can nurture them but not save them. Meanwhile, blacks on the island are restive as they face yet another example of white prejudice and disdain.

Nunez takes her readers back into the lives of her main characters, into a convoluted past that produced the confusion in which the women live. The arbitrary nature of authority under colonization lays the foundation for ongoing anger and envy. The past still cements individuals in pain and confusion. Concepts of who is black and who is white are shown to be as fragile and changeable as definitions of good and bad. In the end, whiteness can not protect.

But colonization is only part of the problem. Domination of men over women can mirror colonization’s ugliness and unfairness, but the color of the dominator can change. A black man and a Chinese man are the ones destroying Rosa and Zuela. The question of who will survive, and how, contributes to the suspense of the book. Certainly there is pain in this book, but there is joy as well. Saying more would give away too much.

Elizabeth Nunez is a fine writer. Like other Caribbean authors her description of the landscape is riveting. She also is a master of probing individuals’ motivations and feelings and revealing parts of their personality that they themselves would rather not face. Although obviously sympathetic to Rosa and Zuela, she is sensitive to the forces driving the men who abuse them.

I strongly recommend this book as wonderful story to read for pleasure and for the inside look at colonization and male domination that it provides.

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