In her engrossing and darkly lyrical debut novel, How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House, Bajan author Cherie Jones unspools a discomfiting allegory of race, class and intergenerational trauma in a far from idyllic fictional Caribbean community.
It begins with a bloody fable about an act of rebellion gone wrong: A disobedient girl loses her arm to a monster because she didn’t heed her mother’s warnings about the dangers of the tunnel, that it has “monsters that live down in there, how any little girls go in there they never come back out.”
This allegory becomes a touchstone—and the rest of the novel an elaboration on that cautionary tale—as headstrong Lala finds her life quickly unraveling after she marries a man that her grandmother characterizes as “a louse.” By leaving her grandmother’s house for a man whose slickness is easily mistaken for charm, Lala chooses a life she thinks will mean freedom but only brings pain and even more restrictions, setting in motion a series of tragedies with wide-reaching ramifications.
Several related events—Lala’s act of defiance, her husband’s botched and deadly burglary of a wealthy British visitor and the traumatic death of their baby—occur in quick succession, but their consequences and interconnectedness are revealed at a slower pace. However, one thing is clear from the start: Life in this place they call “Paradise” is nasty, brutish and fragile, if not always short.
Even as tragedies and indignities pile up, the murkiness surrounding the novel’s events will compel readers to continue reading. Questions arise about how a simple robbery went so wrong and how Baby died—but most importantly, why? What are the roots of these characters’ discontent and recklessness?
A bleak and complex picture emerges through this ensemble story, with chapters that alternate between generations and time periods as well as individual points of view. When Lala’s grandmother Wilma tries to make sense of it all, her answer is all too familiar: Willful women who tempt men, who don’t listen, sow the seeds of their own destruction. In the fable, the monster might have stolen the girl’s arm, but she was “slack-from-she-born” and “force-ripe” (sexually precocious) and above all, “own-way” (disobedient). She brought it on herself; bad girls reap what they sow. On this topic, both Wilma and Lala’s husband agree. Even the police officer tasked with investigating Baby’s death identifies with Wilma’s worldview.
Like the fearsome Wilma, author Cherie Jones is a powerful storyteller. Like the policeman, many readers will feel compelled to follow her into the dark even though there’s precious little joy or light to be found there.