Art by Florence Sykes
Andre Bagoo reviews The God of Good Looks (Breanne Mc Ivor, Penguin Fig Tree, 2023) and Mrs. B (Elizabeth Walcott-Hackshaw, Peepal Tree, 2014).
THE ORIGINAL function of the novel, V.S. Naipaul once suggested, was to give us news: to provide society with a very clear idea of itself. It can be said that Naipaul has been wrong about many, many things and yet, in the context of the modern Caribbean novel, his observation about this most discursive of forms feels particularly on point. Two recent works by Trinidadian writers – Breanne Mc Ivor’s The God of Good Looks (Penguin Fig Tree, 2023) and Elizabeth Walcott-Hackshaw’s Mrs. B (Peepal Tree Press, 2014) – continue the rich tradition of literature as reportage that characterises much of Caribbean writing, a tradition exemplified by writers such as Naipaul himself, Samuel Selvon, Earl Lovelace, and more. But not only do these books continue the work of earlier generations, they ask us to grapple with the complexity of the Caribbean space, pushing against a tourist brochure image of the region as being merely about sun, sand, sea or 1950s nostalgia. Think you know the Caribbean? Think again – they seem to say.
But there are ghosts. Nobel laureate Naipaul, a Trinidad-born British novelist, makes no less than three appearances in The God of Good Looks. The book follows an aspiring Trinidadian writer, Bianca Bridge, who moonlights as a model and makeup artist to make ends meet before finding a job in publishing and ultimately writing her debut novel. This is all Bianca’s story, but it is nonetheless punctuated by imposing literary figures such as Sir Vidia, whose first appearance comes in the form of an allusion to his classic novel A House for Mr Biswas, a work in which the protagonist’s search for property is a conceit for newly independent Trinidad and Tobago’s search for actualisation as a free state. The second appearance is the naming of a section of the book after Naipaul’s controversial non-fiction work on Trinidad, The Middle Passage. And the third comes in the form of an epigraph taken from that book. Ironically, it is yet another famous Caribbean-born winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature who supplied the germ that became Mc Ivor’s novel. In an afterword, the author explains the genesis of her text was an entry in one of Derek Walcott’s private journals which she discovered while working in a Trinidadian archive for a commission for the 2018 Bocas Lit Fest (Walcott spent many years in Trinidad, founded the Trinidad Theatre Workshop and was the inaugural winner of the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature). The entry was a whimsical “self-interview” which began:
W: Why have you succumbed to this self-interview?
W: For the money.
This dialogue is transplanted into the opening of The God of Good Looks. That the book begins with this gesture is fitting given the novel’s intertextuality. (And here I use the word “intertextuality” in the wide sense of bearing relation to literary precursors and their books.) This is a work that tells the story of one woman’s quest to become a writer. The book we hold in our hands, we are eventually meant to understand, is itself the product of that quest: it is the novel assembled by her after a baptism of fire endured within classist, bigoted Trinbagonian society. In the process, several other books are alluded to and include Naipaul’s Biswas, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch, in addition to the work of poets like Walcott and Shivanee Ramlochan (there is an epigraph from Ramlochan’s Forward Prize-nominated debut collection Everyone Knows I Am A Haunting). Mc Ivor’s writing is nonetheless so sharp and engaging, the prose so lucid and readable, the story so unputdownable, that it is easy to understand why some booksellers or marketers might call this novel a “summer read”. But that Walcott was part of its genesis is, to my mind, a pathway to another kind of engagement with the text. I see the story here as being in a sly dialogue with Walcott’s corpus as well as Naipaul’s. It seems to say: if the world of cosmetics, beauty, modelling, fashion and lifestyle magazine publishing did not make it into the centre of either men’s oeuvre; if these worlds might have seemed trivial or frivolous to one generation of male Caribbean writers (Naipaul dismissed the novels of women writers like Jane Austen as “mere gossip”; in an interview he said the prose of female writers was sentimental and inferior), that is an omission that speaks to larger failings. Furthermore, at a time when we have now moved beyond old binaries, the novel is concerned with dismantling gender tropes surrounding the cosmetics industry, tropes that, sadly, often still hold sway in Caribbean society (a Trinidadian government minister recently teased a male opposition politician for wearing make-up during Parliament; the minister’s backwardness went unchallenged by civil society). By focusing on her protagonist’s everyday concerns, the author has thrown down the gauntlet.
Within the pages of Mc Ivor’s prismatic book, there is a mirroring of the ways in which certain subjects are assessed as being worthy or unworthy within literary output while others deemed taboo. At a crucial moment in the plot, much turns on the publication of a new edition of a fashion magazine that has decided to take up the weighty editorial topic of crime. “We can tackle the issue of crime head-on,” says Obadiah Courtland, Bridge’s boss, who serves as her foil and then gradual love interest. “We’re just holding up a mirror and saying look at what we have become. Think of it more as starting a conversation.” The God of Good Looks starts a similar conversation about what matters to Caribbean writers and why and who gets to tell which stories. It asks why the pressing realities of the day cannot be present within a book that is described by its publishers as a “modern-day Bridget Jones’s Diary”. Readers will find there is no reason why not.
If both novels give us news about the Caribbean, much of that news is grim. The crime situation in Trinidad and Tobago is an integral part of the makeup of The God of Good Looks. At one stage, Bridge tells us:
“There had been twenty-six murders in the last six days. The Express ran a black front cover to suggest mourning. Inside there was an article ‘Has T&T Become a Narco State?’ The Guardian published an article that read ‘The Breaking Point: The Systemic Destruction of Trinidad and Tobago.’ It was replete with statistics and suggestions. A graph tracked the murder rate in the country since 1994, when a paltry 143 murders were committed. This still seemed a lot to me, when our population was just over a million, but it paled in comparison to the recent statistics. Last year, the number was 516. This year, we were on track to beat that.” (167)
Newsreel-styled passages like this take on added resonance given the fact that the book was published mere months after the country recorded its highest annual murder rate in 2022: 605. (As I finished this review, Trinidad’s murder toll for 2023 had already surpassed 400). Characters in the book also face violence: Bridge is robbed of a necklace, Courtland is stabbed and robbed of his wallet. What is at stake for both is not just the relevance of their magazine, but also something personal, related to their freedom.
Similarly, Mrs. B, which is a text inspired by Gustave Flaubert’s Madam Bovary, features characters who are confronted with the crime situation and the limits of their personal conduct. The book follows its eponymous protagonist and her husband Charles Butcher (she hates the surname) as they grapple with the return of their daughter from the US. We learn that at one stage the family had been forced to move out of their old home in Coco Valley because of a violent attack on a member of their neighbourhood:
“In spite of the nostalgia she felt, Mrs. B had to admit that her valley, like everything else on the island, had changed. In recent years those who had made Coco Valley their home had built towering walls that locked them in, making sure that the villagers who walked past had no chance of seeing anything inside their palaces. But with each robbery that took place in the valley, each kidnapping, each shooting, Mrs. B and Charles felt that the enemy was getting too close. At night every pop became a gunshot. Then there was the body dumped in the canal by the main road that snaked through the valley, bloating in the sun like a dead dog.” (26)
This is not the Caribbean writ large as merely an exotic tropical paradise. There is a reluctance to give primacy to landscape over social concerns. A sentimental harking for things past does not feature. It is an approach also evident in the prior books of these two authors, both short story collections: Walcott-Hackshaw’s Four Taxis Facing North (Flambard Press, 2007) and Mc Ivor’s Where There Are Monsters (Peepal Tree, 2019). But that is not where the similarities end. In their recent debut novels, both writers’ go on to explore class and the way it shapes Trinidadian society. They concern themselves with the impact of politics on everyday life. And they relay intersections of race, gender, sexuality, and mental health. Family is a major concern, as is the search for love in all its forms.
In one crucial respect, however, these new works depart from one another. Whereas the intertextuality in Mc Ivor’s novel arguably feels more dialogic (in Russian thinker Mikhail Bakhtin’s sense that it does not merely answer, correct, silence, or extend a previous work, but informs and is continually informed by the previous work), the intertextuality in Mrs. B is concerned with a different set of presuppositions.
Walcott-Hackshaw relocates the rarefied French, bourgeois world of Flaubert’s 1856 novel into a modern-day Trinidad besieged by crime. On the one hand, there is something wry about this approach. On the other hand, the relocation, as surprising as it may seem for some readers, is perfectly organic. It is often forgotten that there are deep and lingering ties between France and the Caribbean, including Trinidad. Under Spanish colonial rule, the 1783 Royal Cedula of Population was drawn up, resulting in the largest inflow of French settlers into a Spanish colony. A large French Creole population emerged, occupying an elite position in the island’s social makeup and influencing the overall tenor of the colony irrevocably. To date, several placenames are French (Belmont, Petit Valley, San Souci, Grande Riviere); the French Creole population continues to have a presence. Thus, Professor Walcott-Hackshaw’s novel is no mere academic exercise (the author is currently the Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Education at the University of the West Indies, where she has taught French literature and creative writing). It is a dramatic signal to the world of Trinidad’s complexity, a carnivalisation – in the sense proposed by Bakhtin – in which the seemingly separate are brought together. This is particularly fitting because, as both books remind us, Trinidad is a “Carnival society”, in which social modes and norms are rendered unstable and contingent in an annual, two-day ritual of dramatic pageantry and bacchanal, and all else seems inflected by this. In the past, this ritual was a direct response to and critique of plantation power. Today, its lingering presence is a memorial to the colonial history of the island, and Walcott-Hackshaw’s wielding of Mrs. B feels like an act of masquerade that pokes fun at European domination. It is a reclaiming of space.
The tide has shifted. Whereas the “Windrush Generation” of Caribbean authors were more concerned with the complexities of migration, the puzzle of how to define “home,” nostalgia for what has been left behind, and the racism of the so-called “Motherland” (Naipaul, Selvon, Andrew Salkey, George Lamming, etc.), these two writers are part of a wave of writing that would much rather stay grounded and tackle the current realities facing the region. This wave of new Caribbean realism also includes books by Trinidadians such as the late Jennifer Rahim’s Curfew Chronicles (Peepal Tree, 2017), Claire Adam’s Golden Child (Faber, 2019), Ingrid Persaud’s Love After Love (Faber, 2021), Celeste Mohammed’s Pleasantview (Ig Publishing, 2021) and Caroline Mackenzie’s One Year of Ugly (The Borough Press, 2021).
But the intertextuality here is also fresh. Whereas a writer such as Walcott engaged ancient epics, retelling the Iliad as Omeros, for instance, to assert the equal status of people from former colonies, these contemporary writers are perhaps more concerned with unsettling static notions of identity and place. Books like Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, and Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera make appearances, for instance, in Mrs. B not to signal the erudition of any party (Mrs. B ironically does not like books despite owning and gifting many) but to heighten the sense of older texts haunting current life. Intertextuality, for this generation, is more a metaphor for how the past is never dead; it is not even past. And it is worth asking whether the violence featured in these novels is a symptom of societies suffering from structural malaise; economic and social patterns set in motion from since colonial days when political subjugation found expression in physical domination.
If both Mc Ivor and Walcott-Hackshaw trouble the beginnings and ends of texts, they also push against the genre parameters of the publishing world. As a work of literary fiction, Mrs. B could just as easily be classified as a beach read,while The God of Good Looks is as much a page-turning romance as it is a Künstlerroman of the highest order: a coming-of-age tale in which an artist finds her voice, even if that process is circumscribed by a patriarchal distribution of power and resources. Must a book be just one thing or another? These novels remind us that works of fiction can be, like their characters, multiple things all at once: that is the very nature of the Caribbean and its people, and in this sense, these are two deeply Caribbean books. Naipaul also once declared the modern novel dead because it was no longer able to be truly “first” in the stories it brought. Happily, Mc Ivor and Walcott-Hackshaw prove him wrong.
ANDRE BAGOO is a Trinidadian writer, poet and essayist. His latest books are Narcissus, The Dreaming and The Undiscovered Country.