Trinidadian author Elizabeth Nunez has cleverly crafted a tale overtly based on Shakespeare’s King Lear. Her narrator, Emile Baxter, is a bookish black man raised by his stoic, physician father in upper class Port of Spain, Trinidad. Emile, whose mother died while giving birth to him, is gentle, reserved, and observant; despite his privileged upbringing, he is keenly aware of the ethnic and economic inequalities which plague so many modern day countries. As this tale unwinds, Emile gifts the reader with a glimpse of the dynamic conflicts and racial tensions of his part of the world.
“The past to me was also the present. It affected our thoughts, our actions. I had been to Ducksworth’s house, saw where he lived -in a mansion on top of a hill with a spectacular view of the sea. He owned the land where his house stood, the two fat fingers extending out to the sea too. To get to Ducksworth’s house, we had to pass tiny shacks. Black people lived in those shacks, the children of the enslaved Africans Ducksworth’s people had brought in chains to the Caribbean. How much had changed in their lives? They were poor; Ducksworth was rich, still as rich if not richer than his people who had made their fortunes from the suffering of others. Ducksworth lived on Mango Road. The man who showed us the way lived on Mango Trace, minutes away, but miles from the world of the Ducksworths.”
While Emile is the narrator, Peter Ducksworth is Lear, the protagonist and center of this unfolding tragedy. A white widower and lifelong Trinidadian, Ducksworth and his three daughters teeter on the blade dividing “true” Caribbeans from wealthy colonizers. His older daughters, Glynis and Rebecca, covet, consume, and clamor for love, attention, and material possessions like the spoiled rich girls that they are. The youngest daughter Corinne, however, is more open and loving with her father and more attuned to the prejudices and oppressions of modern Trinidad, Barbados, and Jamaica.
“‘The past informs the present and the future,’ Corinne said. … ‘The lives we live today are the result of the lives our families lived in the past.'”
As the daughters scheme and vie for their father’s love and, ultimately, his land, Emile is increasingly caught up with this family and their roiling turmoil. Though his allegiances are foretold and intuitive, they are nonetheless well developed by Nunez’s persuasive prose.
“Even in Paradise” is the second reprise of a true classic that I have read this spring. Unlike Vesna Goldsworthy’s “Gorsky” (see my review here), which seemed hamstrung by its role model, “Even in Paradise” takes a centuries -old story and makes it modern, fresh, and relevant. Elizabeth Nunez injects lush detail and Caribbean flare throughout her writing. The result is a story whose framework may be familiar, but whose unfurling is gripping and alluring and whose voice is truly unique. A perfect spring read, fueling my appetite for a day of reading in the white sands of paradise.
Thank you to Akashic Books for the complimentary review copy.