Reviewed by Lisa Pike
Red Jacket is the debut novel of acclaimed Jamaican-born scholar, poet, and short story writer Pamela Mordecai. Sprawling out across place and time, the novel works to articulate familial relationships grounded in their historical, social, and political contexts. Set during the latter half of the twentieth century in the fictive locales of the Caribbean island St. Chris, the West African town Mabuli, and the all-too-real Toronto, the novel forays into the realm of the bildunsgroman whereby the main character Grace, comes to take her place within family, community, and the larger world.
Redibo or “Red Jacket” because of her light skin, red hair, and “greeny-grey” eyes, the young Grace tries to understand the possible meanings of her difference from her black extended family and the majority of St. Chris’ inhabitants. Taunted as “Puss-Eye” and teased abouther dubious origins, Grace seeks solace in the written word. Winning scholarships which take her to other island cities, and then “in foreign” to Toronto, Michigan, and eventually West Africa where she begins research on HIV, Grace’s life unfolds in complex ways rooted in multiple places.
Central to the novel, and to Grace’s adult life, are Mark Blackman, university chancellor, and “Jimmy,” Jesuit priest. While the first character is Grace’s lover and the latter devoted friend, both men are part of the narrative’s quasi-philosophical meditation on the nature of desire, love, spirituality, and inter-generational responsibility. Grace’s biological mother Phyllis is another important character in the novel. Though Grace does not come to know her mother until she is grown, the reader is privy to letters Phyllis faithfully writes from New York. The letters are especially poignant insofar as they narrate an adolescent struggling to grow up while simultaneously attempting to impart wisdom to her daughter, a mere twelve years her junior. Phyllis’ letters also provide commentary on the nascent civil rights movement and give a sense of Caribbean history with future possibilities: “There is going to be lots of Prime Ministers in the Caribbean and I don’t see why you should not be a lady prime minister,” she writes to Grace.
In addition to the epistolary narrative mechanism of the book, the reader is given a series of alternating character-based sections. Continual shifts in place, time, and character are accompanied by lively shifts in language that move between creolized forms of English and more standardized forms. “Gracie feel from she is small-small that she will never be like Pansy, eldest child of all, strong and facety, fearing nothing” (25) is the opening line of one of the introductory chapters. As part of its invitation to readers to experience the richness of language along the creole continuum, a glossary at the end of the novel gives details about provenance and usage of terms.
Although the latter half of the novel seems at times to sacrifice character and its work with language to the advancement of plot, the novel is important for its scope. Like any inquiry into genealogies, origins, and histories, the paths are complex, winding, and often circle back. Grace’s eventual dilemma with her son as product of an affair with a married man, for instance, is bound up with her own childhood and eventual discovery of the circumstancesof her birth. For those attuned to a Caribbean literary tradition and women’s writing in particular, the echoes of Paule Marshall’s Daughters, Merle Hodge’s Crick Crack, Monkey, and even Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea will most certainly be heard in Mordecai’s latest work.
Red Jacket is published by TAP BooksLtd./Dundurn Press.
Reviewer Lisa Pike holds her PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Toronto. She has published poetry and fiction in journals and anthologies such as CV2, The New Quarterly, sub-Terrain, Riddlefence, and Whiskey Sour City. Her novel My Grandmother’s Pill (Guernica Editions) was shortlisted for the 2015 Relit Awards. She has recently moved back to her hometown of Windsor, Ontario where she teaches and writes.