Trouble in Paradise

Tucked in the eastern part of the Caribbean region is the island nation of Barbados. The most easterly of the Caribbean islands, archeological records show that the island was settled as early as 1600 BCE. From 500 to 1500 CE, it was occupied by Arawak and Carib people who called the island Ichirouganaim, which roughly translates to “Red land with white teeth”. Like most of the Caribbean islands, Barbados eventually found itself a part of a European overseas empire. For over three centuries, Barbados was a territory of the British Overseas Empire before it finally declared independence on November 30, 1966. Ever since declaring independence, Barbados has turned into a top-notch tourism destination. Advertised as a beach paradise, the island nation’s tourism industry plays a vital role in its economy.

But beyond the glossy pages of the magazines in which Barbados is commonly advertised are the ugly realities lurking at every corner. In How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House, Cherie Jones captured the flipside of these glossy pictures and postcards. Jones’ long-awaited debut novel was set in 1984 in the beachside community of Baxter Beach in Barbados. Over the years, the idyllic tropical haven has been developed into a foremost tourist destination where tourists from the world over can soak in the sun and drown in margaritas. The uber-rich, on the other hand, bought properties on the beachfront which they turned into their resthouses. For the affluent and the tourists, the sand-washed beaches represented an escape from the stresses of life.

The same, however, cannot be said of the locals, the Bajans. While they were reaping the benefits from the booming tourism industry, they had to kowtow to the demands and the whims of the tourists at the expense of their personal dignity. They had to play second fiddle to the rich tourists. The novel explored these dynamics through the novel’s main character, Lala, who, at the age of eighteen was married to Adan. Lala was named after a song by Esme, a mother she barely knew. The only remaining member of her family, her grandmother Wilma, has disowned her after she eloped with Adan. Adan and Lala were also expecting their first child. To earn a living and support their growing family, Lala was braiding the hair of tourists.

“How could Wilma not expect this child to look for her mother’s humming, to be drawn like a moth to a flame to anyone who wished not only to retrieve this name, but to dust it off, shake it out, try it on with her? From the moment they met, Adan had called her no other name but Lala, had sung her name in every tone he could think of to see if she would recognize it, would remember exactly the notes her mother intended her to. It was one of the reasons she had loved him.”

~ Cherie Jones, How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House

The story eventually diverged as a new voice started to emerge. Like Lala, Mira Whalen nee Martineau grew up on the island. Mira was a mixed-race Bajan and she stamped her ticket out of the island through an affluent British hedge fund manager, Peter Whalen, who visited the island. He took her as his bride, uprooted her, and brought her to his home in Wimbledon where they looked after his two children from his previous marriage. Unfortunately, the newly-installed Mrs. Whalen was never able to conceive her own children. After years of being with him, she grew tired of their marriage, leading Mira to find comfort in other quarters. In a last-ditch effort to rekindle their flame and, consequentially, save their marriage, her husband proposed that they return to the place where they first fell in love with each other. However, what was supposed to be a relaxing holiday in their Baxter Beach villa turned south when tragedy struck.

Beyond the veneer of paradise that overlaid Baxter Beach, the novel underscored the stark dichotomies between the different social classes. In their own homeland, the Bajans were reduced to second-class citizens as tourists and foreigners have become the priority. While the rich foreigners while away their time in their opulent villas that have sprouted and lined up on the beachfront, the Bajans occupied ramshackle houses. The impoverished locals, to earn a steady living, were hired to look after the home, tend the garden or serve as house servants to foreigners they barely knew. Some, like Lala, were braiding the hair of willing tourists. Domestic tasks the rich were unwilling to perform provided opportunities for the locals to earn money. These are typical scenes, during the daytime.

The landscape drastically changes when nighttime arrives. Cognizant that honest paying jobs were not enough to raise them from the quagmires of poverty, some of the locals were forced to resort to illicit activities. Survival has become essential and, at the same time, brutal, especially with the growing economic disparities. Some of the locals have become part of the illegal drug trade while some sold themselves to the tourism trade. There was also an alarming but inevitable escalation of violence as burglaries have become ubiquitous, some even leading to devastating consequences. In one critical scene, a botched robbery attempt led to a murder.

The novel permeated with dark themes and subjects that also trickled into every stratum of the Bajan society. In Baxter Beach, violence does not only exist on the streets. Within the ambit of the locals’ homes, violence still persisted. Women have repeatedly become victims of domestic violence, and so were the children. Rape and incest were also commonplace. With the unrelenting images of violence, one can find the fine blueprint of toxic masculinity. The fragile male ego was a catalyst in triggering them to resort to extreme actions. The novel also magnified how patriarchal sensibilities have adversely affected the locals’ way of thinking.

“Dying, finds Lala, is something like surfing a rainbow with very bright colors in all shapes and forms, dancing out of a point that is perpetually spilling them so that you are forever traveling forward on swaths of billowing reds and blues but never really getting anywhere, just forever traveling toward a tiny hole where all the color originates and where it ends.”

~ Cherie Jones, How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House

The several layers of abuse further underscored the intergenerational facet of sexual and physical abuse. Generations of different forms of abuse and trauma have essentially muted the feminine voices. The novel depicted how the older generation of women has essentially become enablers of violence and victim-blaming. They have inculcated into the young women’s minds that abuse should be endured and accepted. Marriages were seen not as a means to find a lifelong companion but rather, it was seen as a pragmatic solution to getting out of poverty. They have endured abuse in silence, hence, they expect the younger generation to do the same. The older generation cultivated passive acceptance of their fate. By nature, men were inherently lustful, hence, their aggressiveness cannot be blamed on them but rather on the women.

Lala’s fate was already sealed even before she started navigating the complex world of young adulthood. However, it was not without any precaution from her grandmother who assumed the role of a parent after her mother’s untimely demise. When Lala was thirteen years old, Wilma told her the story of the One-Armed Sister; it was also from this local tale that the book derived its title. One of the two daughters of the village vicar, the One-Armed sister used to have a complete set of arms. She and her sister were warned by their mother not to attempt entering Baxter’s tunnel, the entrance of which was in plain sight of the vicarage. The caveat, however, only made her more curious about what lies beyond the darkness. “Curiosity kill the cat, don’t make yourself stupid like the one-armed sister,” Wilma warns her granddaughter.

The novel was riddled with allegories and metaphors. The book’s title was the most immediate reference. Incognito and ominous, the subterranean world under Baxter Beach harbored dark elements, a place inhabited by outlaws and their ilk. It was representative of the darkness that shrouded the society existing on the surface. Meanwhile, the locals see rain as daggers while childbirth was referred to as an injury. In Jones’ masterful stroke, even braiding hair was more than just a quotidian task; it carried its own significance. More than aesthetics, braiding hair was the quintessence of the art of self-expression. It was an integral part of the culture and of the community. Speaking of the community, by weaving in and out of timelines, Jones was able to subtly capture the transformation taking place on the island and the influence of different outside forces.

One of the finer elements of the novel was Jones’ prose which allowed her to capture the atmosphere very well. She was able to paint a vivid picture of Baxter Beach, capturing both its finer and darker contours. Albeit it was a fictional setting, the place came alive with Jones’s rich and descriptive prose. Cultural details intricately woven into the novel’s tapestry rendered the story a more genuine complexion. The descriptive quality of the prose arrested the readers’ imagination and filled their eyes with the picturesque landscape. The smell of local cuisine seduced the readers’ olfactory senses while reggae beguiled the auditory senses; at least in literary terms. Further adding color to the narrative was the interjection of Bajan patois into the dialogues. While the writing was fine, Jones’s tendency for repetition wearies the reader.

“Esme would have explained to her daughter, if she had lived, why, despite all this, she did not say no, why she had stood in the cramped bedroom she shared with a man she did not love and watched him get on one knee and present her with a box with a thin gold band crowned by the single small diamond he had slaved the better part of a year for. She would have said to her that she did not wish this for her own daughter – the responsibility of having to say yes to a man for whom this proposal was the singular objective of several months’ unrequited affection.”

~ Cherie Jones, How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House

How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House, however, was not without its faults. The constant shifts in points of view weighed down on the overall impact of the story. Jones’s descriptive prose and language also managed to vividly capture the violence that permeated the story. The unflinching gaze on these ugly realities was commendable, especially with Jones being a victim of domestic violence herself. However, such graphic details, while inherent to the story’s message, can be discomfiting. Each page was brimming with images of abuse and violence that the only way for the characters to grow was through violence.

Women were also left with only two options: endure the abuse or run away from the island. The development of the two main storylines, that of Mira and Lala, took on two starkly different paths. Lala’s storyline reached a climactic end, fully living out to its potential. The same cannot be said with Mira’s storyline. Her storyline seemed to carry an important message at the start; Jones made sure of that. However, she and her story eventually started losing significance as the story progressed. Her storyline never reached its peak and in the end, Mira was reduced to a background character.

While it had its flaws, How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House did well as a vessel in delivering a new literary voice in Cherie Jones. In her debut novel, Jones conjured a riveting tale where love and survival collide. At its heart, the novel is a cautionary tale that also captured the pains and the plights of a community. Race, class, abuse, and trauma were vividly woven into the novel’s tapestry. The symbiosis of all these elements did not escape the interest and the attention of readers and literary pundits alike. It was even shortlisted for the 2021 Women’s Prize for fiction. For all the darkness that wrapped it from the onset, the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel eventually came as the story reached its conclusion. Amidst the darkness, hope beaconed. To reach this light, however, one must brave the sea of discomfiting images.

“In those tunnels, you understand that you do not learn to love a man, because for the right man there is no need for the learning, the love is the most natural thing in the world. You understand that if you must learn to love a man, he is probably not the man you should be loving.”

~ Cherie Jones, How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House
Ratings

62%

Characters (30%) – 21%
Plot (30%) – 
16%
Writing (25%) – 
15%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
10%

It was while researching for books to include in my 2021 Books To Look Forward to that I first came across Cherie Jones’s How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House. The novel kept on appearing on similar most anticipated 2021 books lists. The lengthy title and the book cover also piqued my interest. It didn’t take much convincing for me to add the book to my own list. The book’s shortlisting for the 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction only served to fuel my desire to read the book. Thankfully, I didn’t have to wait long to obtain a copy of the book. I made it part of my first-ever immersion into the heart of Latin American literature; it was also my first book written by a Bajan writer. My anticipation for the book reached a fever pitch but in the end, I felt shortchanged. I had such high expectations of the book. Admittedly, I had a challenging time with the novel and it did take me some time before I was able to warm up to it. The graphic images slowed me down and I needed time to make sense of the events taking place. I liked the writing but the patois, at times, got in the way of my appreciation of the story. Nonetheless, I am looking forward to what Jones’ prose can offer.

Book Specs

Author: Cherie Jones
Publisher: Little Brown and Company
Publishing Date: February 2021
Number of Pages: 276
Genre: Literary Fiction

Synopsis

In Baxter’s Beach, Barbados, Lala’s grandmother Wilma tells the story of the one-armed sister. It’s a cautionary tale, about what happens to girls who disobey their mothers and go into Baxter’s Tunnels.

When she’s grown, Lala lives on the beach with her husband, Adan, a petty criminal with endless charisma, whose thwarted burglary of one of the beach mansions sets off a chain of events with terrible consequences: A gunshot no one was meant to witness. A new mother whose baby is found lifeless on the beach. A woman torn between two worlds and incapacitated by grief. And two men driven into the Tunnels by desperation and greed who attempts a crime that will risk their freedom – and their lives.

How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House is an intimate and visceral portrayal of interconnected lives, across race and class, in a rapidly changing resort town, told by an astonishing new author of literary fiction.

About the Author

Cherie S A Jones was born in 1974 in Barbados. In 1995, she received an LL.B degree from the University of the West Indies, Barbados. Two years later, she received a Legal Education Certificate from the Hugh Wooding Law School, St Augustine, Trinidad. In October of the same year, she was admitted to the Barbadian Bar. Jones is currently hugging her law practice and her writing.

While studying at the University of the West Indies, Jones was active in the Creative Writer’s Society. Her works were recognized in writing competitions. In 1999, she was awarded the first prize at the 1999 Commonwealth Short Story Competition for her work Bridge. She completed her master’s degree in Writing at Sheffield Hallam University in July 2015. She was awarded the Archie Markham award and the AM Heath Prize for the best fiction dissertation for Water for the End of the World. Her dissertation also won the 3rd prize in the Frank Collymore Literary Endowment Awards. She was also awarded a fellowship at the Vermont Studio Centre.

In 2014, Jones published her first book, The Burning Bush Women & Other Stories, a collection of short stories, In 2021, her long-awaited debut novel, How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House was published. Critically acclaimed, the novel was shortlisted for the 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction. Her works have also appeared in publications such as PANKEclectica, and The Feminist Wire. BBC Radio has previously broadcasted her works.