Land of Love and Drowning
Published July 10, 2014
355 pages (hardcover)
The other day, my mom remarked that I’ve been giving a lot of books high ratings lately. She’s right. In the last month or so, I’ve given a 4/5 to The Girls from Corona del Mar, The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street, and Americanah. She jokingly questioned whether I had gotten soft.
So, what’s the deal? Have I been in an exceptionally good mood and feeling generous lately? Perhaps. But my rating for each of those books has since been confirmed by people who read the posts and subsequently read the books (thanks Erin, Shana, and Tina, respectively!). I’m inclined to think, therefore, that I’ve just been having some really good luck with some really good books lately.
Land of Love and Drowning continues that streak. When I finished reading it, I was a bit concerned about giving a 4/5 to yet another book. For me, a 4/5 can only be achieved by a really good book—a book that is not only exceptionally well written, but also one that has a big impact on me (it either makes me think a lot or feel a lot or both)–and I certainly don’t want that rating to get diluted or seem easy to achieve. But, after ruminating on it for a bit, I decided that I had to give this book a 4/5. It deserves it.
This book is unique and, because of that, it is definitely not for everyone. It has some very polarizing qualities.
For starters, it is chock-full of incest. And it’s not always abusive, shameful, scary incest (although, arguably, there’s some of that, too). Some of it is unintentional (that is to say, unknown), loving, caring incest. Some of it is intentional and nevertheless, arguably, loving and caring. A book about loving, caring incest is probably not everyone’s cup of tea.
There’s also a good bit of magical realism (be forewarned, Fiction Fan and others of her ilk!) with some island voodoo mixed in for good measure. There’s a chick who can read minds, a chick who can cast curses that come true (“speak-and-make-it-so magic”), and a woman with a hoof where her foot should be. This magical realism gets expertly mixed with writing that is full of such beautiful imagery that there are times when you lose track of where the magical realism ends and the imagery begins. Like this paragraph:
Over breakfast, Jacob Esau told his mother that he had met Anette Bradshaw. At this, his mother’s hair, cut just below the ears since her sons had all reached puberty, stood out straight as if it were a den of snakes she carried hidden in her scalp. She hissed at Jacob Esau. Her tongue flicked out long and she stamped her foot like a steed.
On top of that, the story is told from multiple voices. Mostly, it is told by the unnamed “old wives” as a family history about the Bradshaw sisters, Eeona and Anette (“Anette Bradshaw will be as different from her elder sister as water is from land. The elder sister will be so stunning that men will scare of her. But not Anette. Boys will stick to the younger sister like the slick of mango juice. A trinity of men will feel the love of her like casha bush burring their scalp in sleep.”). But there are also chapters told in first person by the sisters (and a couple by their brother, Jacob). Eeona is well-mannered and intent on keeping up appearances. Her voice reflects that. It is measured, reserved, and uses only the most proper English. Anette is wilder, led by her heart, and full of internal conflict. Her voice is the voice of the islands:
The restaurant was called Hibiscus Hotel. I, for one, had never heard of it. A stupid name, you hear, but that’s what Americans always doing. Naming things after island things that don’t make no sense. Who want a hotel that sound like it fill with hibiscus? That’s the kind of flower close up and dead when nighttime come. That’s what you want people thinking when they fall asleep? But Hibiscus Hotel wasn’t make for we.
If you’re on the end of the spectrum that is OK with the incest (reading about it, that is) and the magical realism and the narrative style, then you’re in for a treat.
This book is great. Above all else, it is a tribute to the beauty, magic, and history of the Virgin Islands:
But these islands are just too beautiful. You walk out of your own front door into cathedrals. You step down your own stairs up toward an altar. God speaks from the bougainvillea bush, from Mountain Top. You go to the beach and swim in holy water. The beauty, like Gods’ face is ubiquitous and it is blinding.
But it is also a complex and intricate history that spans decades. The characters are vivid and beautiful and weird and interesting. Yanique is an excellent (although occasionally meandering) story-teller, and the book is beautifully, creatively written (while I read, I marked about twenty stunning sentences and paragraphs . . . but I decided it would be too spoiler-y to include most of them in my review. I would rather let you discover and appreciate them during your own reading of the book).
Ignore the negative Amazon and Goodreads reviews (they just don’t get it . . . or they’re merely turned off by one of the things I mention above), and read this book now.
- Short-listed for the 2014 Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize
- One of Mashable’s “The Top 24 Summer Books of 2014”
- Starred review by Kirkus
- Starred review by Publishers Weekly
This is a debut novel by a relatively unknown writer, so it hasn’t gotten a lot of hype. It deserves much, much more.
Who should read it: John and Lindsay (i.e., people who have a fondness for magical realism and an appreciation for the beauty of the Virgin Islands); Tina (i.e., people who like unique, thought-provoking books with interesting voices. This would be a bold book-club pick).
Want to read along with me? Reviews of these books are comings soon:
- The Vacationers by Emma Straub (an Amazon Best Book of the Month for June 2014; an Indie Next List pick for June 2014)
- One Kick by Chelsea Cain (the #1 LibraryReads List selection for August 2014)
- All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood by Jennifer Senior (an Amazon Best Book of the Month for February 2014 and New York Times best seller)