Land of Love and Drowning, by Tiphanie Yanique, Riverhead Books
“The rest is magic and myth – fiction, as we call it.”
The final sentence of Tiphanie Yanique’s author’s note could easily have been the epigraph of Land of Love and Drowning.
It is 1916, and Denmark’s Virgin Islands are about to be transferred to the United States. Owen Arthur Bradshaw is a prosperous sea captain, fighting a dangerous attraction to his exceptionally beautiful daughter, Eeona, a pull that she too feels and that will be one of the forces shaping her life. Captain Bradshaw’s ambitious wife, Antoinette, is unhappily pregnant with their second child, Anette. His lover Rebekah McKenzie, market-woman and obeah woman too, is also pregnant, with their son. The fates of everyone in this extended family are intricately entwined and will only become more so as the generations traverse the 20th century – through Prohibition, the Second World War, and hurricanes both meteorological and emotional.
Magic, myth and history are interwoven in a tapestry of predominantly female voices. The main characters, Eeona and Anette, recount much of the story, along with the chorus that is the main narrative voice. “We old wives,” the chorus names itself. This is, in the best way, an old wives’ tale.
The magic makes its way through the several familial strands of this epic. Various gifts – welcome and unwelcome – manifest in each generation. Some of the women possess a power of the mind to make things happen, or a knowing beyond the common. In more than one case a character literally has one foot in the supernatural world: Rebekah has one hairy calf, ending in a hoof, and Anette’s daughter Youme, who shares some of her aunt Eeona’s mental gifts, has one backward-facing foot, presumably passed down through her grandmother Antoinette, kin to the Duene people of her home atoll of Anegada. Yanique does a nice job of mixing physical manifestations of the mystical with more ambiguous forms, subtly layering perceptions of reality and myth.
She is concerned with history as well; issues of race and colonialism help drive the action. The increasing presence of Americans on the islands and the development of a tourism industry owned by white mainlanders and exploiting islanders are very much a part of this story. Yanique explores the resulting alterations in islanders’ self-perceptions, and draws a lively fictionalized portrait of the real-life political movement to make the islands’ beaches accessible to all.
While the magical details are nicely rendered and easy to accept within the story, the action often feels contrived. Coincidence plays far too prominent a role in the plot, and characters’ motivations are sometimes hard to credit. The author even occasionally resorts to explaining and justifying an unlikely turn of events, a glaring sign that she is straining credulity to create a desired plot twist.
Although Eeona starts off as the main character, her presence in the story is uneven, and she is so prim and rigid that it’s hard to feel a real connection to her. As the book progresses, it begins to feel as if Yanique has lost track of her, and her attempts to reinsert Eeona into the story come across as laboured and artificial. Anette is the most fully developed and most engaging of the characters, perhaps because we get to know her best. She starts speaking to us from Antoinette’s womb and continues throughout the tale, gradually becoming the pillar at the centre of the story’s structure.
Yanique herself is from St. Thomas, one of the three main islands in the US Virgin Islands, and the main setting of her novel. The story she has written draws from her family’s history as well as broader currents in the Caribbean and American past.
For many readers, this book will bring the Virgin Islands to life as a homeland, not just a tourist destination, complete with culture, cuisine, music, and colonial history.
Elise Moser’s YA novel, Lily and Taylor, was named to the list of Best Fiction for Young Adults 2014 by the American Library Association. She is the editor of the anthology of Quebec Writing Competition winners, Salut King Kong, forthcoming from Véhicule Press.
-photo : Image from page 252 of “The Virgin islands of the United States of America; historical and descriptive, commercial and industrial facts, figures, and resources” (1918), Flkr Media Commons