Tuesday 14 August 2018

Review by Sandra Pollock of "Unburnable" by Marie-Elena John

Unburnable by Marie-Elena John was published in 2006, and named Best Debut Novel in that same year by Black Issues Book Review. The novel is about a woman haunted by an unclear and traumatic childhood, and an entrenched idea of an inherited evil. The novel tells the tale of three generations of African Caribbean women, and how their history and beliefs impact on their island community. 

Although a little confusing at the start, one of the strengths of this novel is the way John weaves back into the past, and forward into the present again. She takes the reader on a journey of discovery, fascinating and informative: walking through the lives and experiences of Matilda, Iris, and Lillian on the Caribbean island of Dominica.

John creates characters the reader can relate to, even in their sad and unfortunate life struggles. There are delicious twists and turns with added humour and horror. This painful tale may seem shocking to a novice of African Caribbean culture, but very real to many who’ve lived deep within it. One of the darkly humorous aspects of the stories centres on the Catholic religion and a nun, Mary-Alice, who, in her Western ignorance and drive to save the blacks from themselves, fails to understand or even accept another way of life. This arrogance leads to the slaughter of a whole people - one of the novel's major horrors, along with the retribution served by Mrs Richards on a young Iris, starting another chain of events.

As I read the novel, I felt for Lillian, her difficulty in trusting herself or allowing people into her life. I understood her outer success, but internal sense of loss and lack of connection with her roots. The characters felt human, as John shows their pain, confusion and misinterpretations throughout. I particularly like John’s ability to describe the voices and sounds from far beyond Lillian’s own age and times - back to the voices of her African ancestors, calling her back to find out the truth of who she is and what happened to her mother and grand-mother. Unburnable serves as an allegory of how the past controls the present and our future, and cannot be ignored, however hard we try. 

Another delight of this novel is how it delves into and portrays African and Dominican culture, history and beliefs. It demonstrates how much these have been trampled down, with the intention of being stamped out, but are still felt in every area of the society, and culture of the island. Unburnable has strong female characters with a matrilineal tribe, the foundations of which hark back to Africa.

Unburnable and the life of Lillian parallel in many ways the wider history of the African diaspora in the Caribbean and America, and the people's journey to find who they are, understand and connect to their own history, beliefs, spirit and spirituality, uncensored by Western ideologies. The more we fight a thing, the more it invades us - that would be my inscription for this novel. This is a rich, well-paced and vividly described novel.  

About the reviewer
Sandra Pollock loves fiction, fantasy and poetry, and is taking an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester.

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