Country Focus: Dominica
By Marie-Elena John
Published by Amistad, 2006.
About the author: A native of Antigua, John is an advisor on gender affairs at the United Nations Office of the President of the General Assembly. She mined her mother and aunts for details of 1940s Dominica for Unburnable, her only novel.
Lillian, a successful Washington DC activist, has kept the details of her past a secret, even from her best friend Teddy. Now, 23 years after she left Dominica, she’s returning, and she wants Teddy to accompany her. Her relationship with Teddy, a celebrity pundit, has thus far been platonic but sexually charged. Teddy initially balks at Lillian’s invitation, but a sudden twist in their relationship changes his mind. Together, they fly off to the mountainous Caribbean island of her youth.
Unburnable tells the tale of three women: Lillian; her mother Iris, a mad prostitute; and Matilda, her grandmother who was hanged for murder. The chapters alternate between the present and the past, gradually revealing the lurid details of Lillian’s family. Lillian plans to prove her grandmother’s innocence, but Teddy worries that his unstable lover’s emotional turmoil will lead her into a complete meltdown.
John’s at her best when dishing about Lillian’s relatives and describing the Dominican culture and landscape. I thought Lillian was too aloof and manipulative of Teddy to be a sympathetic character. Teddy, whose role never evolves beyond sex toy and worrywart, didn’t appeal to me either. Even still, the book succeeds. John wrote a page-turner; I blazed right through Unburnable.
Teddy looked at Lillian on the chilly mountainside, backdropped against green, the surrounding mountains so high that only the smallest circle of sky was visible directly above them, and he understood why so many immigrants, approaching old age, return home after having built their entire life in another country. He had thought it was something sentimental about being buried in the soil of one’s homeland, but now he realized that it was because at home, in the place where they learned how to walk and to speak, they no longer had to strain.