This is an official Caribbean Books Foundation review http://www.caribbeanbooks.org/
First post for the year, and it’s a review! If you noticed, there was no December Caribbean Books review. Apologies, but December of 2019 was seriously hectic and needed to chill.
But we are here once again reading Caribbean books and letting the world know what’s what about them. This month I’ll be reviewing A Dark Iris by Elizabeth J. Jones.
We’re visiting the isle of Bermuda this session, but not in recent times. Well, it kinda is recent. The story is based in 1972, it’s not like we’re talking 1872 here. That’s still pretty recent, right? Although when you consider that 1972 is just two years shy of fifty years ago… geez, it does kinda make me feel old.
Anyway. The story follows our young girl Rebekah, living on the island of Bermuda. Like any girl child of that age and time with parents who are high achievers themselves, she’s worried about getting into the prestigious Meridian Institute that her parents also attended.
She’s stressed out further by the fact that her home life has turned upside down. Her parents have very different ideas as to what constitutes success. Her father’s insistence to leave his white-collar job to pursue his passion in the fields causes her parents to separate as her mother believes no respectability can come from being a farmer.
All of this causes Rebekah to have a double mind over what she wants in life as well. Like her father she wants to follow her passion, her painting which she is brilliant at and her father encourages her to do so. But she also wants to please her mother by doing well in school and achieving what her mother wants for her, which does not include her art.
And in the midst of all of this, there are the visions she suddenly starts to see of people who lived centuries before her.
Her compulsions to paint or draw what she sees whenever and wherever she is at the moment often lands her in trouble at school and at home. The visions are poignant and sometimes disturbing, but she eventually realises through the help of one of her teachers how important they are as they reveal the truth about an event in Bermuda’s history.
Now, this book is mainly fiction. I believe I got it at the Bocas Lit Festival last year and it’s been stuck in my bookshelf ever since. It was a Code Burt Award finalist in 2018, and I can see why. When I started reading the book I honestly was mildly interested. I don’t hold to the belief that a book should hook you at the first page anyway and any reader who discards a book because the first chapter didn’t make them go ‘wooooooooooow’ needs a slap on the wrist. I mean, come on, you can’t be a real reader if you are dismissing books so quickly.
In the 25 or more books that I read last year only ONE book had me completely at hello and still, even after that wonderful beginning I would only give it 4 out of 5 stars overall. But several of the books that started ‘mildly interesting’, I mean they weren’t bad beginnings I just wouldn’t fall off my seat over it, a lot of those books I actually gave 5 stars. Because by the 3rd or 4th chapter things became clear that they were going somewhere far more interesting than the book that had a great first opening chapter!
This book was like that. The story started off like an ordinary day. Very unassuming, bound to end up like all the rest until you’re tumbling down the rabbit hole of racism, century-old ‘murder mysteries’, gender prejudices and assassinations of public officials all being seen through the eyes of a teenaged girl. I learned a lot about Bermuda’s history in a way that struck me more acutely had I heard a random snippet about ‘Sally Bassett’ on some coached tourist tour through Hamilton.
Again, the author makes it very clear that this is a reimagining of history, but it brings to light the atrocities that would have been faced by slaves during the course of the slave trade and to their descendants a long time after. The story was very vivid and very well-paced, but honestly, my favourite parts were reading about Rebekah’s paintings.
Just the discussions she had about capturing light and shadow with her tutor and the descriptions of her painting were engaging. I like learning random little things from books. So for instance, now I know that when painting, white isn’t just white. Light reflects all kinds of different colours in white itself and blending and layering them can give you the right effect.
I also loved to read the feelings Rebekah had about her art and the thought that encompassed her work while she brought it to life was very well illustrated. Even without any actual illustrations. This was my only real disappointment about the book I think. It really was a shame that no paintings were included. I hope that if there ever is an updated edition that one or two of Rebekah’s paintings can be rendered by an artist and added as I would love to see them. Not because I don’t trust my robust imagination, but because art is pretty and I want to see it!
I honestly liked all the characters. None of them felt out of place or overly cliché. Rebekah’s mother irked me the most. I guess you could say she was the antagonist, but the story was not that simple. There were several people who created obstacles for the main character. I just really had a particular angst towards her more than any other antagonist. She wanted her daughter to be the best she could be and essentially tried to open her eyes to the reality of the world at that time. A good education would open doors for her.
But you see, looking down on people who do ‘certain’ kinds of jobs is a pet peeve of mine. I grew up with proud, working-class parents and some of the most successful people I have known in my life have been farmers or people with non-white collar jobs. Her mother’s ideas were severely outdated, but then again it was 1972, and it did create interesting conflict when needed, which I assume was the idea. A good book to help show the smallies that everyone has their own story and their own goals in life and it doesn’t do to frown on someone’s choices just because you’ve chosen a different path.
So please give Elizabeth J. Jones’ gripping semi-historical fiction a try and visit the author’s website where you can find more of their work, contact information and links for their social media accounts to catch up on what they’re doing next! Also, visit The Dark Iris book page on Caribbean Books where you can find purchase links. Please help support the author and the foundation by buying the book there. Thanks for reading and see you next month for another review!
– N. Gomes, Caribbean Books Foundation
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