“Though she doesn’t know the story, Thandi has captured all of this pain. All Delores is to her is this ugly, dark woman capable of nothing but fits of rage and cruelty. Who knew that both her daughters would come to view her this way? Delores sinks into the chair around the dining table. Thandi, like Margot, hates her. And so does Mama Merle, sitting outside on that rocking chair. The old bat will spend another day wishing her beloved, good-for-nothing son home; while Delores will continue breaking her back to provide for the family, doing what she does best: survive.”
I was nine years old the first and only time I visited Jamaica, my mother’s home country. My sister’s grandfather on her father’s side had passed away, and I eagerly awaited this chance to see where my mother had grown up; to see this country that so fascinated and tickled the rest of the world. I envisioned warm sunny days, pristine beaches of sparkling white sand, more plates of curry goat and ackee and saltfish than I could possibly eat. When we touched down in picturesque Montego Bay, I thought my fantasy had come true. And then my mother said, “This isn’t our final stop, remember. We’re going to Kingston.”
Nicole Dennis-Benn’s novel, Here Comes the Sun, examines what is lost in the liminal space between wealth and poverty; knowledge and ignorance, acceptance and hatred. Her characters are red-blooded and complex: beset by circumstances beyond their control, they each strive to live their lives in a way that serves a greater purpose, and the tragedy lies in their individual interpretations of what that purpose is. We watch a family of three women: Delores, mother of two and long traumatized by the residual effects of ingrained colorism and early pregnancies she was utterly unprepared for; Margot, her older daughter who will stop at nothing to provide the life for her little sister that she never had; and Thandi, the baby, who bears the weight of her family’s hope and expectations, with little opportunity or encouragement to pursue her own. And Verdene, Margot’s secret lover, a pariah in the community due to her sexuality, the knowledge of which is nestled deep within the more palatable charge of witchcraft, also known as ‘activities women engage in that are foreign, and thus supernaturally wrong’.
Perhaps the most poignant character of this book is Jamaica herself, home to a people that must endure endless exploitation of their homeland for its natural beauty, while being shunted to its less prosperous inland towns. For such a small island, the ideological and economic differences are vast. There are issues inherent in its very infrastructure that create complications within the characters' relationships that are never resolved with a tidy little bow. Dennis-Benn is refreshingly candid about the society's oversights, shortcomings, and areas of victimization, and does not offer hollow solutions to the many problems she explores. While this makes for a story that aches with longing, for redemption, for vengeance, even, it's not one in which you lose the threads in a sea of misery and hopelessness. There is so much more than pain, here: the many ways that faith and devotion can make themselves known, the pure joy of self-discovery, the intoxicating magic of first love.
Kingston was hot, as I expected, but it was a somewhat muted, damp warmth: cloying, pregnant with mosquitoes. I developed an obsession with counting and cataloging my bites: well over a hundred, spotting my arms, legs, neck, feet and hands. I felt wretched: I couldn't stand the shoddily paved roads, crumbling building facades, children in torn clothing with outstretched hands - markers of a level of poverty I had never experienced, could barely comprehend. I met my grandmother for the first time, and was both terrified and in awe: she sobbed when she saw her daughter, when she saw me. Her appearance and demeanor made her seem both intrinsic to her surroundings yet somehow grander than them, a contradiction I would not come to understand until much later. Auntie Thelma. I failed to notice, too, how famous - or infamous - she was in those parts.
Even when we visited a friend of my mother’s who lived in a more affluent part of Kingston, I couldn’t enjoy it: her mansion was beautifully furnished, air-conditioned, and full of snacks, but I couldn’t let go of the discomfort that had burrowed beneath my skin, like mosquito venom. I felt so far from home, so guilty for my misery, and suspended in a constant state of shock that this place had been my mother’s home, that she found comfort and refuge in it - that she discovered a way out, and then came back. Even the patois I heard was surprisingly incomprehensible: somehow thicker and more rapid-fire than what I had grown used to hearing at home. I was nine: I couldn’t verbalize this storm of conflicted emotion, I could only swat and cry and complain and grow quiet when I met yet another family member, while I marveled at the cows and goats grazing on the side of the road, while I sat still so that three women could braid tight extensions into my hair. I think that I packed a bathing suit, but we never made a trip to the beach. It seemed impossibly far from where we were, anyway: among the red dirt and tall grass, honking cabs and the sickly-sweet smell of sun-drenched fruit, grasping my mother’s hand tightly, wondering at the depths she’d hidden so carefully inside of her.
Here Comes the Sun brought me back to that place: suspended between the foreign and the familiar, bearing witness to a vivid world that is both enticing and horrifying in almost equal measure. So much of this story’s heart lies in the spaces between: the words that can’t be uttered, the paths that can’t be taken, the gulfs that can’t be crossed. Each person is an island unto themselves, carrying their wholly singular burden, laboring beneath the sun, beneath its thick, unforgiving heat. And the vast, glittering blue ocean, an oasis, just a bit too far out of reach. Paradise found, and lost again, only a few miles away.
Here Comes the Sun, Nicole Dennis-Benn, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, NY, 2016.