GDon’t go into the tunnels anyway, Grandmother Lala had warned. And as a deterrent, she told the girl the story of the vicar’s daughter, who ignored her mother’s warnings, snuck out at night and lost her arm to a monster in the underground passages. With only one arm she would never be able to find a husband and take care of the family, so the message from the grandmother, because how can you sweep the house with only one arm?
What Lala hears is a story about the cowardice of the other islanders. The thirteen-year-old asks why nobody went into the tunnels to retrieve the arm. Then her grandmother knows that her horror story has had no effect. Of course, like all fairy tales, the story was less about fictional monsters and more about real dangers that the granddaughter wants to protect her from. Because the grandmother fears that the women in her family are cursed. They turn men’s heads too easily, and it usually ends fatally for them.
So it was with Lala’s mother. And the girl, too, will soon leave her grandmother’s house with a man who falls in love with her, but who by no means treats her the way she had dreamed. Bruises, scars and wounds tell of his outbursts, but Lala stays with him even when she is expecting a child. But the grandmother was wrong, that quickly becomes clear.
A variety of women’s fates
Because the fatal male desire, which can so quickly turn into violence, not only weighs on the women of her family as fateful fate, every woman in Barbados can tell her own story about it.
In her debut novel How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps the House, Cherie Jones describes a multitude of such women’s fates on her home island. The fact that she places the eponymous legend right at the beginning of the book sets the tone and can be read as a warning that the following protagonists are all as injured as that sweeping one-armed woman, but also: that they still have to make it like her, you to master life.
The chapters alternate between these figures, bearing the respective names as titles. So you follow the heavily pregnant Lala in search of her husband from the shabby wooden house on the beach to the high gates of the holiday villas. Sometimes you watch a woman who became a widow as a result of a nocturnal raid in one of these villas as she tries to process her pain. Sometimes you look over the shoulder of the policeman who is investigating the murder of this man between the holiday homes of rich foreigners and the slums of the locals and himself keeps dreaming of a prostitute with whom he cheated on his wife and whom he himself desires so passionately that he would kill for her.
No room for sparkling pools
The life paths of all those involved cross each other and become more and more entangled. Jones succeeds in taking a look behind the facades of the holiday paradise, telling stories of poverty and precarious family relationships, of rape and love stumbling blocks, of dreams of advancement and fleeing abroad. The panorama of her characters not only includes all social classes, it also branches out further and further into the past with each chapter. The author also devotes separate chapters to the ancestors of her protagonists, tells how boldness can be found as a character trait in several members of a family and how violence can trigger a chain reaction over generations. There are no purely good or bad people here, no one is just a victim or a perpetrator, every person has a history of childhood abuse, parental violence, or sexual assault by strangers.
Jones may know the impact of these experiences from her work as a lawyer in Barbados. As a writer, she evokes in her readers an understanding of the actions of these disabled people in sober, precise language. She only allows herself gimmicks when describing the scenery, thus escaping the kitschy images that some of the Caribbean idyll may have in mind.
There’s no room for sparkling pools and chilled rum drinks here. Instead, the coconut palms have “rachitic trunks that bend away from each other” and cast “clawed shadows” on stair steps. When the wind goes through it rains centipedes crushed on concrete. And the sea has days when “the water is hung over in the morning” and “the beach stinks of fermenting moss.” Those who spend only a few days a year here can dream of an idyll, for everyone else it is a dangerous place that can devour them if they are not careful like the one-armed sister.
Cherie Jones: “How the one-armed sister sweeps the house”. Roman. Translated from English by Karen Gerwig. CultureBooks, Hamburg 2022. 325 p., hardcover, €25.