Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Just Below the Surface

Book Review: Land of Love and Drowning by Tiphanie Yanique

" ... men who spend their lives on the water know that magic is real."

On the surface, Tiphanie Yanique's Land of Love and Drowning is a multigenerational tale of a family in the Virgin Islands in the early 20th century. As such, it is an interesting enough novel, detailing the ways in which the characters interact -- their lives and loves and travails. The reader gets a taste of the island culture: the flavor of the language, the beauty of the landscape, the aroma of indigenous cooking.

But when the reader dives deeper, into the warm depths of Love and Drowning, he finds an entire world hidden below the relative calm above. Strong currents of racism, roiling storms of war, schools of segregation, and whirlpools of adultery lie in wait.

The transfer of the Virgin Islands from Danish rule to American guardianship turns out to be simply the exchange from one type of colonialism to another. The Americanization of the Virgin Islands brings the foreign concept of private property ownership, and the fencing off of the beaches. There was a gain in material comforts, but it was in exchange for a loss of liberty.

With the influx of American cars and plumbing and electricity came American racism and segregation. The fences on the beaches extend into daily life, with restrictions based on color lines. Miscegenation was frowned on, the historical mixing of African and European and Asian and Carib. Islanders who served in the armed forces returned from the mainland disillusioned; they had expected to be accepted by their new American compatriots, only to find doors closed to them.

Yanique skillfully interweaves the personal stories with the larger events to create a whole cloth - we see history from the personal perspective of the characters, and each is given equal weight. Placed against the magical, mystical background of the islands, Land of Love and Drowning gives us the Virgin Islands as microcosm; where Jim Crow and Hollywood intersect with the ebb and flow of the Caribbean and the bleached bones of a shipwreck, lying just below the surface.