Book: The True History of Paradise

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Book:

The True History of Paradise: A Novel

Author: Margaret Cezair-Thompson
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Publisher: Dutton Adult

Easter, 1981, and Jamaica’s in a state of emergency. With violence in the streets and a government about to collapse, the Landing family gathers to bury one of its own. For Monica Landing, the proud, imperious matriarch who had not spoken to her daughter in fifteen years, the death of Lana Landing is the cruelest kind of loss. For Lana’s younger sister, Jean, it is a tragedy she cannot comprehend. All she knows is that her beloved homeland, with its blue mountains and exuberant flora, its rich African rhythms and crashing ocean waves, holds no future for her.

But flight means crossing a landscape where soldiers turned executioners and armed gangs rule, where fires rage and unburied bodies lie in the roads. Flight means making her way through the memories that engulf her, with a good and silent man, perhaps the only man she has ever loved, traveling by her side, caught up in his own tormented memories of Jean’s beautiful, flamboyant sister.

Told from a multiplicity of perspectives, The True History of Paradise captures the grace, beauty, and brutality that are indelible parts of the Jamaican experience. The story of three women born into a divided, troubled paradise becomes the history of a country, of generations of wanderers coming together in a place that can neither sustain nor be sustained by them, but that will shape them forever.

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It’s 1981 and Jean Landing is about to flee her disintegrating homeland, Jamaica, but first, she must bury her sister. Lana, a pop singer in the early days of Reggae, has immolated herself in a moment of madness and must be buried immediately “because, as someone explains to Jean, burned bodies decompose quickly.” The funeral takes place in the morning; that afternoon, Jean is on her way across the mountains to a rendezvous with a private plane that will take her to the States. Accompanied by her childhood friend, Paul, she drives across her island nation, noting the increasingly violent confrontations between political factions even as she retreats into memories of her own fractured past:

Ghosts stand on the foothills of this journey. She smells their woody ancestral breath in the land’s familiar crests and undulations. She has heard them all her life, these obstinate spirits, desperate to speak, to revise the broken grammar of their exits. They speak to her, Jean Landing, born in that audient hour before daylight broke on the nation, born into the knowledge of nation and prenation, the old noises of barracks, slave quarters, and steerage mingling in her ears with the newest sounds of self-rule. On verandas, in kitchens, in the old talk, in her waking reveries and anxious dreams, she has heard their stories.

From her own mother, the light-skinned, “selfish and adamant” Monica, sister Lana, and deceased father, the black nationalist Roy Landing, to her white ancestor Rebecca Crawford, they are all here, sometimes in Jean’s memory, other times telling their stories in their own voices. It’s a complicated weave of story lines and voices, but Margaret Cezair-Thompson carries it off with aplomb. The True History of Paradise explores both the political and the personal as Jean’s childhood remembrances play out against the war-torn landscape of Jamaica. Near the end of the novel Jean reflects, “To leave one’s country. It is not a complete sentence, a complete anything. Its infinitive possibilities leap from loss to promise and back again from promise to loss.” This promising first novel makes those leaps with nary a stumble. —Margaret Prior

Margaret Cezair-Thompson’s The True History of Paradise opens in 1981 and Jean Landing is about to flee her disintegrating homeland, Jamaica, but first she must bury her sister. Lana, a pop singer in the early days of reggae, has immolated herself in a moment of madness and must be buried immediately, “because”, as someone explains to Jean, “burned bodies decompose quickly”. The funeral takes place in the morning; that afternoon, Jean is on her way across the mountains to a rendezvous with a private plane that will take her to the US. Accompanied by her childhood friend, Paul, she drives across her island nation, noting the increasingly violent confrontations between political factions even as she retreats into memories of her own fractured past:

Ghosts stand on the foothills of this journey…They speak to her, Jean Landing, born in that audient hour before daylight broke on the nation, born into the knowledge of nation and pre-nation, the old noises of barracks, slave quarters, and steerage mingling in her ears with the newest sounds of self-rule. On verandas, in kitchens, in the old talk, in her waking reveries and anxious dreams, she has heard their stories.

From her own mother, the light-skinned, “selfish and adamant” Monica, sister Lana, and deceased father, the black nationalist Roy Landing, to her white ancestor Rebecca Crawford, they are all here, sometimes in Jean’s memory, other times telling their stories in their own voices. It’s a complicated weave of story lines and voices, but Margaret Cezair-Thompson carries it off with aplomb. The True History of Paradise explores both the political and the personal as Jean’s childhood remembrances play out against the war-torn landscape of Jamaica. Near the end of the novel Jean reflects, “To leave one’s country. It is not a complete sentence, a complete anything. Its infinitive possibilities leap from loss to promise and back again from promise to loss.” This promising first novel makes those leaps without a stumble. —Margaret Prior

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