Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!
Synopsis: Nola Chambers is a reminder that her family wasn’t always the golden-skinned, fair-haired folk who can stand proud and nearly-white in their village of Redding. Nola reminds her father that the woman he married had very dark antecedents. It’s not a reminder he appreciates, it’s a reminder that causes snickers and whispers in the town, and his anger over the incident of Nola’s birth marks her for life — literally. By the time Nola is in middle school, her body bears scars from her father’s disgust. Her mother – silent and wan – simply works, avoiding the chronic angers of her home, making a home for her husband wherein his restless furies can sometimes be silenced. Nola is still young enough to be bewildered. Why, she wonders, does her father hate her? Why is her luck so bad? How can her mother not protect her?
At school, her isolation leaves her nothing to do but work hard. Her grades are high. Her loneliness – unbroken except for Dahlia, the ugly, silly daughter of a suspected whore, an affront to the pious village. Nola wishes Dahlia would go away – but since she’s the only one who tolerates her, it seems unkind to chase her away. Nola’s brokenness doesn’t escape the eyes of her teacher. The ponderously shaped woman pairs Dahlia and Nola for homework for the rest of term. Delroy, another classmate collared for fighting with Dahlia, is tossed into the unlikely mix as well. A bundle of three sticks, after all, can’t easily be broken. “Never break” becomes Nola’s private mantra. But it’s not a belief she can sustain. When disaster ultimately takes everything from her – even her precarious place in her home – Nola and her teacher start over again in Kingston, with her teacher’s niece, Petra, her baby, and her teacher’s “bundle of sticks” which make up her chosen family. But, a city isn’t a fresh start for a country girl. Beguiled by drugs and believing the world owes her, Nola bites the hand that brought her help and enters into another grueling cycle of helplessness and defeat — until she meets someone who needs more help than she ever did. Pushed to rise to raise another, Nola finally finds her feet – finds her heart – and finds herself healed.
Observations: First self-published in the Caribbean in 2011, this novel was picked up by a British publisher two years later. Like other novels depicting life in Jamaica, this novel includes the cadence of language and the patois of the region, but readers will find a glossary unnecessary, as context clues are easily drawn from the scenes.
Though not as concisely written, this novel stands well alongside novels like PURPLE HIBISCUS by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, with its densely written, literary style – and also its violence by a parent and the compare-and-contrast world of “this is how I live/this is how they live” the narrator goes through. Nola’s story arc carries her from grade school to finally becoming a successful high school graduate at nineteen – and takes her full circle back to her family home. It is not a story which brings up feelings of softness and fullness at its conclusion, but of a flint-edged satisfaction that the reader has waded through the story to discover the main character has survived.
Colorism isn’t something many Americans understand thoroughly, as the bizarre legal structures historically erected against people of color in America has been based only marginally on skin tone in contemporary times, but in other countries, it’s much more prevalent. Seeing a “preference” become a disgust to this extent may be shocking to some readers, but for others, this will be a book to nod over and think, “Yeah, I’ve seen stuff like this.” I can imagine it sparking many conversations.
Conclusion: Many young adults enjoy “disaster fiction;” books about The Worst happening, and apply their imaginations to how they would survive. Novels about abuse and suffering also fall into this subgenre; while many adults don’t understand the appeal, it’s important for some readers to find books which let them answer for themselves, “What would I do?”
Overall, this book is about survival – and it’s at times a tough read. But knowing that people can not only survive, but thrive in spite of adversities is one of the gifts of realistic fiction targeted toward young adult readers.
I received my copy of this book courtesy of the publisher. After May 26, you can find DEW ANGELS by Melanie Schwapp at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent UK bookstore near you!