In “Here Comes the Sun,” Nicole Dennis-Benn has written the ultimate anti-beach novel. It may take place entirely in Montego Bay, but be not deceived: If you’ve come for palm trees and umbrella drinks, you’ve boarded the wrong plane.
This lithe, artfully plotted debut concerns itself with the lives of those for whom tourists can barely be bothered to remove their Ray-Bans, and the issues it tackles — the oppressive dynamics of race, sexuality and class in post-colonial Jamaica — have little to do with the rum-and-reggae island of Sandals commercials.
“Can’t wait to leave dis godforsaken place,” says Margot, the book’s central character, as she rides to work one morning.
“Is it dat bad?” the taxi driver asks. “We live by di sea.”
“This is no paradise,” she replies. “At least, not for us.”
Much of the dialogue in “Here Comes the Sun” is written in this patois. It’s one of the book’s incidental pleasures, its own melodious tune. (Dennis-Benn was raised in Kingston, Jamaica’s capital; this sound is clearly part of her inner speech.)
So: Who is this Margot? She’s the 30-year-old beauty with the practiced smile at the front desk of the Palm Star Resort. She’s also the secret — and utterly indifferent — courtesan who serves the hotel’s wealthiest patrons and sleeps with its owner. She’s a furnace of magnificent ruthlessness and shrewd determination. She will do whatever it takes to transcend the poverty of River Bank, the former fishing village where she lives with her mother, who sells souvenirs at the market, and her 15-year-old sister, Thandi, whose brain is the family’s biggest future asset.
She is willing to blackmail. She is willing to sow rumors about a colleague’s sexuality to get ahead, though she loves another woman herself. When the resort owner suggests she branch out and recruit women for a high-end prostitution ring, Margot agrees, though the proceeds will go toward a new hotel that will displace and destroy her neighborhood.
It does not matter. She has her sights set high. She wants to manage that new hotel.
Becky Sharp has nothing on Margot. But Margot’s story is far more tragic. Beneath her saw-toothed cunning is a person still capable of real feeling, including love. She has spent her life protecting Thandi from the sexual depredations she suffered. With the money she makes, she wants to send Thandi to college. And she wants to buy a home for her and her lover, Verdene, in a gated community where they won’t be terrorized for being gay.
You do not want to be gay in River Bank. You will find dead dogs at your doorstep, their throats cut open.
Margot is one of the reasons to read this book. She is a startling, deeply memorable character. All of Dennis-Benn’s women are. The author has a gift for creating chiaroscuro portraits, capturing both light and dark. In almost every scene, she conveys how the molecules shift around Margot, the air vibrating with the tension between her stone-cold resolve and her electric sexuality. (When the employees at the hotel start to whisper about her, “she makes direct eye contact that forces them to look away, ashamed for their filthy imaginations.”)
Margot’s mother, Delores, seduces customers with the same cynicism and skill that her daughter uses to seduce men. She, too, crackles with life and makes a terrifying impression. A dervish of spite, she is forever trying to put her older daughter in her place. When Margot was 10, she came home radiantly happy one day.
“For some reason,” Dennis-Benn writes of Delores, “the joy and innocence in her daughter only infuriated her. Had Margot known what life could become for girls like her, she would never grin like that.”
When Margot was 14, Delores forced her daughter to have sex for $600 with a man who approached her stall. Only with time do readers come to understand the complexity of her motives. But the bottom line is the same: From then on, Margot most certainly understood what life could become for girls like her.
One of the most painful lessons of “Here Comes the Sun” is how the cycle of exploitation repeats itself. Margot profits from the girls in her prostitution ring the way her mother profited from selling her. In post-colonial Jamaica, you take what you can get. The cupidity of the government and white real estate developers leaves working-class locals, women especially, with few options. It pits mother against daughter, neighbor against neighbor. Devour or be devoured.
Perhaps the ugliest legacy of colonialism, though, is self-hatred, passed down from one generation to the next. “Who yuh know really love a black girl for more than what’s between her legs?” Delores asks. “Nobody love a black girl. Not even harself.”
No one has internalized this message more than Thandi. Under her clothes, she has slathered skin-lightening cream on her body and then mummified herself in Saran Wrap. When her mother discovers her secret – “Yuh sistah turning into a white ‘ooman undah me roof!” she shrieks — Thandi replies that she’s sick of being black.
Thandi is equally sick of being a vessel for her family’s hopes. She no more wants to be pimped out for her talents than her older sister does. What she really wants is to go to art school — and to date a local boy, who actually loves her. But her mother will have none of it. “What will set yuh free is money,” Delores says. “Don’t say me neva teach yuh dat.” It’s the closest thing to a religious credo she has.
“Every Negro walk in a circle. Take that and make of it what you will,” the Jamaican novelist Marlon James wrote in “The Book of Night Women.” He’s referring most broadly to slavery — that it’s a devil’s loop of hardship, privation and servitude — but what’s clear, after reading “Here Comes the Sun,” is that many Jamaicans are still tracing those circles two centuries later.
How to determine your fate in such a place? How to snip the loop?
“Here Comes the Sun” is deceptively well-constructed, with slow and painful reveals right through the end. Just who’s able to give history the slip, and at what cost, is one of the saddest things you'll ever read. A few characters’ fates we don’t even hear about. I assume they are circling still.
“Here Comes the Sun” by Nicole Dennis-Benn; Liveright ($26.95)