Tiphanie Yanique’s debut novel, Land of Love and Drowning, chronicles the lives and loves of three generations of the Bradshaw family, spanning a period from 1916 to the 1970s. Yanique has drawn upon her own Virgin Islands ancestry to weave this atmospheric tale, set against the political emergence of the island of St. Thomas as an American territory.
Sea captain Owen Arthur Bradshaw, descended from West African slaves, settles in the Villa-by-the-Sea in St. Thomas, but goes to neighbouring Anegada, an atoll surrounded by reefs, to find a wife. Although Antoinette is pregnant with another man’s baby, the captain is not to be thwarted. “Swift as anything,” says Anette, youngest daughter and off-beat narrator/ historian, “captain and girl wash that other man baby away.”
This is a pattern repeated throughout the marriage. Antoinette is restless, insecure and artistic. Her role as dutiful wife is in conflict with the “wildness” she has brought from the atoll. She has “episodes” of this wildness, much frowned-upon in polite society, and a secret life in which she swigs potions to rid herself of unwanted babies. Only the first, Eeona, and the second, Anette, too stubborn to let go of life, survive. Antoinette’s source of abortifacients is local obeah woman, Rebekka, who also happens to be her husband’s mistress. The narrative really gets underway when the two women become pregnant at the same time and realise that they are “in this together”.
Yanique has taken a risk with the structure of this novel, weaving together a complex three-strand narrative, involving an unknown omniscient narrator, Eeona and Anette. The girls’ voices are so diverse that this approach works well, and doesn’t impede the pace of the story. Eeona is refined and ladylike, while Anette’s observations are delivered in an irreverent West Indian patois. Eeona observes scathingly at one point that her little sister, “spoke like a Frenchy”. Their contrasting but also interwoven testimonies are invested with an otherworldly foreshadowing of events, which feeds into the surreal and magical undertones of the novel.
The author tells of a region steeped in myth and crackling with the tension that exists between past and present, between old ways and new. The girls’ mother tells them fantastical tales of her homeland. Anegada (“drowned land”) is not only the matriarchal birthplace but the mythical home of the Duene, siren-like creatures with back-to-front feet, who lure sailors to their doom. The islands are a crucible of diversity, West African goldsmiths, criminals, European women looking for adventure and indigenous Caribbeans who “sat quietly making baskets…plotting ways to kill all the rest”. This close-knit society is underpinned by a recurrent motif of incest. This is played out in the mutual passion between Eeona and her father, and the love affair between half-siblings Anette and Jacob Esau. The child of this union, Youme, is born with a club foot, uncannily evoking her grandmother’s mythical sea-creatures. The novel never judges or moralises but merely unfolds with the seductive slowness and rhythm of island life.
Yanique’s work has been inevitably likened to that of Toni Morrison and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but this is a unique and vibrant debut, coloured by the author’s own sense of place and heritage. Her collection of short stories, “How to escape a Leper Colony”, was published by Graywolf Press in 2010 to very positive reviews from The Caribbean Review of Books and the Boston Globe, among others. A children’s picture book, I am the Virgin Islands, was published in December 2012 by Little Bell Caribbean/Campanita Books. Land of Love and Drowning won the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, the American Academy of Arts and Letters Rosenthal Award and the 2014 Flaherty Dunnan First Novel Prize. Given this reception, it is perhaps unsurprising that Yanique was listed as one of the 14 Women writers to Watch Out for in 2014. This novel will no doubt help consolidate her place in Caribbean and Latin American literature in 2015.