Most people in the United States, if they have mental images of the American Virgin Islands at all, are likely to associate them with sun and sandy beaches, warm water for swimming and pan-Caribbean music. The people who actually live there, if they appear at all, would only be in the background. If for no other reason, Tiphanie
Yanique’s first novel, “Land of Love and Drowning,” is a useful corrective to those images.
The novel follows the family of ship captain Owen Arthur Bradshaw from 1917, when the U.S. bought the islands from Denmark, through World War II, when young soldiers from the islands were exposed en masse to U.S. racism, into the 1960s, as the developing tourist industry became the islands’ major source of income. A constant theme is what it meant for the islanders, with their own culture and history, to become “Americans,” but the social history generally rests lightly on the story; the plot focuses on identity, relationships and myth.
The story centers around Captain Bradshaw’s two daughters, Eeona and Anette, and Anette’s three children Ronalda, Frank and Eve Youme. Eeona, a stunning beauty, has an incestuous relationship with her father from the time she is a child; her impending marriage sends him into a tailspin that ends up with him wrecking his ship and drowning. She never marries but upholds a kind of upper-class snobbery in spite of the poverty that follows. Her beauty turns out to be a handicap — most of the island men don’t want to marry her because other men will always be after her; and the only man who comes close keeps her hidden away until she leaves him.
Anette, who is an infant when her father dies, grows up to be an historian, embracing the islands’ history and dialect. She has a mythic link with her mother’s natal island of Anegada (which means “drowned”), where the people are related to the mythic Duende, mer-type people with backward — turned feet. Anette’s second husband (she divorces the first one) has very dark skin, which in the islands’ social structure means he is lower class than the lighter-skinned families.
Though Anette marries twice, the love of her life, who fathered one of her children, is Jacob Esau McKenzie. In a well-kept secret, he is her half-brother by the captain. As a result of this inadvertent incest, or possibly Anette’s mythic descent, Eve Youme has feet that can turn forwards or backwards like the Duende.
The various threads and themes of the book twist together uneasily. Jacob Esau is possibly the most difficult to understand — as a soldier at a base in New Orleans during World War II, he organizes an armed protest against restaurant segregation that gets him prison and an undesirable discharge; but he lacks the courage to marry Anette against his mother’s wishes and ends up becoming a respectable and rather conservative doctor. When his daughter’s actions inspire a successful movement to reclaim the most important public spaces, the islands’ beaches, from the tourists and white Americans, he stays aloof. It’s not just Jacob who is puzzling, however; most of the main characters make decisions that sometimes puzzle even themselves.
Despite interesting episodes and an effective portrayal of the islands’ culture, the story’s threads never seem to come together and resolve well as a novel. In part, this may be the result of issues never addressed. For example, the culture of the islands at the time of transfer to U.S. ownership is portrayed as self-sufficient, insular and fundamentally innocent. No mention is made of the fact that the Africans in the islanders’ ancestry were slaves on sugar plantations only seventy years earlier; slavery, in fact, is not mentioned in the book. Similarly, Owen Arthur’s incest with Eeona is treated completely matter-of-factly; Owen recognizes that it is “wrong,” but his daughter, at least, never seems to regret or feel damaged by it.
If there’s a central theme to the novel, it’s that the islanders need to hold on to their pasts and their culture in the face of Americanization. Eve Youme’s backward-turning feet, both the possible result of incest and a mythic symbol of the islands’ culture, thus become something to be accepted and honored. Eve tells her father when he wants to send her away to be cured: “Dr. McKenzie … don’t you think that, in a way, it is beautiful? Worth holding on to?”
“Eve. My first child. I don’t believe that this thing is of God.”
“And so? It’s of me.”
Yanique brings some of these threads together at the end, when Eeona visits Anegada in a chapter that contains some of the finest writing in the book: “Who the lobsterman looked like was her mother. … Those were Antoinette’s eyes. That was Antoinette’s mouth whispering her name. … Was everyone related in these Virgin Islands? Was that the strange secret to freedom and belonging? Eeona had never wanted, really, to be anything but her father’s daughter.” She adds, “And she’d never really considered what this might really mean.”
Book Review - Land of Love and Drowning by Tiphanie Yanique