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The True History of Paradise, by Margaret Cezair-Thompson.

July 11, 2016

The True History of Paradise, by Margaret Cezair-Thompson.  Random House Trade Paperbacks (2009), Edition: Reprint, 345 pages.

4 stars

A family epic about the beauty and violence of Jamaica past and present by a woman from, and shaped by, the island.

Margaret Cezair-Thompson, like the major figure in her novel, was born in Jamaica.  Although she later came to the United States, her ties to her homeland remain strong.  She writes with grace and depth about the island, its history and its strangely mixed population.  She also teaches creative writing at Wesley University and has published another novel, short stories, essays and articles.

The novel is set in Jamaica in 1980, a time of intense political and social unrest.  Jean Landing, a daughter of Jamaica in her twenties, is about to leave the island, no longer willing to endure the fear and the random violence of living there.  Her sister, Lana, dies, and Jean is going from Kingston to a small airport on the northern shore to fly to the United States.  Paul, an old friend but never lover, drives her there.  The journey becomes a trip through the memories of her own life and the lives of those around her.  The body of the book is the recounting of these stories.  In addition, the voices of Jean’s Jamaican ancestors interrupt with their own stories.  Jean relishes the physical beauty of the island and her ties to individuals dead and alive, and relives all she would leave behind.

Cezair-Thompson tells the family and national story with both passion and clarity. Jean’s family, like the rest of the island, is rich and complicated.  Although raised together she and her sister have differed fathers, and Lana was the beautiful one.  Jean’s father had cherished her, but died when she was a small child.  Her mother had struggled to survive and thrive, but had little love to give to either daughter.  Jamaica had gained independence from Great Britain shortly before Jean’s birth and was caught in cold-war violence.  Working for the government, Jean tried to remain neutral and apolitical, but lost her job anyway.  A chance to leave Jamaica seemed the best options, but it was a painful choice.

While I knew that Jamaica and the rest of the Caribbean contained people of various ethnic identity and many of mixed races, Cezair-Thompson was the first to convince me of the sheer racial chaos.  When I started reading the book I tried to keep racial identities straight, but the effort was futile. Few individuals appeared to be totally this or that.  Racial attitudes were never “simply us and them” as they have often been in US history.  Black and white, Chinese and Indian, mattered, sometimes fatally, but so many people were of mixed blood that at times other factors such as relationships or assumed political allegiance, mattered more.

Reading The True History of Paradise, I learned a great deal about Jamaica, past and during the unrest of the 1980s.  More significantly, I saw how people lived in a society not structured like my own.  I strongly recommend this book because the writing and the story are moving, and they take you into a painful, yet vaguely hopeful, paradise.

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