28 February 2015

Land of Love and Drowning by Tiphanie Yanique

Summary from Goodreads:
A major debut from an award-winning writer—an epic family saga set against the magic and the rhythms of the Virgin Islands.

In the early 1900s, the Virgin Islands are transferred from Danish to American rule, and an important ship sinks into the Caribbean Sea. Orphaned by the shipwreck are two sisters and their half brother, now faced with an uncertain identity and future. Each of them is unusually beautiful, and each is in possession of a particular magic that will either sink or save them.

Chronicling three generations of an island family from 1916 to the 1970s, Land of Love and Drowning is a novel of love and magic, set against the emergence of Saint Thomas into the modern world. Uniquely imagined, with echoes of Toni Morrison, Gabriel García Márquez, and the author’s own Caribbean family history, the story is told in a language and rhythm that evoke an entire world and way of life and love. Following the Bradshaw family through sixty years of fathers and daughters, mothers
and sons, love affairs, curses, magical gifts, loyalties, births, deaths, and triumphs, Land of Love and Drowning is a gorgeous, vibrant debut by an exciting, prizewinning young writer.

Sometimes a book comes along at just the right time (even though it takes me a bit to actually get it read, the arrival is still timely).

Amid all the discussion last year of needing diverse books and how we should seek out books by diverse authors and containing diverse characters, there was a fair amount of buzz for Tiphanie Yanique's Land of Love and Drowning, her debut novel set in the early to mid-20th century as the Dutch Virgin Islands were being transferred to United States control.  Rebecca Schinsky at Book Riot talked about it, other bookish friends and Internet places talked about it, and I won an ARC in a Goodreads Giveaway.  Which I fully intended to read until my second Riot Read book arrived in August and that turned out to be a brand-spanking new hardcover edition of Land of Love and Drowning.  So I intended to read that copy but here's the thing about reading diversely: when you decide to try and make reading diversely a thing, your to-read list expands exponentially squared (I have decided this is a thing).  Because not only do you have all the books that you might normally find, but you start getting backlist and frontlist recs for authors of color in the US, outside the US, books in translation, books by authors of Jewish descent, books by LGTBQ authors, and books about all sorts of different, diverse characters.  And that's just the fiction books.  The TBR goes from large to Mt. Everest.  And that's OK.  All those titles will keep, I just have to keep reaching for them even as more are added to the top.

So I finally got far enough into the pile to find Land of Love and Drowning again.  It is a tangled web of family secrets set against the backdrop of the US Virgin Islands.  Fathers and mothers have suspect motives.  Sisters keep harmful secrets.  Myth and fate become reality.

The voices in this novel are absolutely pitch perfect: Eeona, so determined to be a "perfect" upper-class lady; Anette, who embodies the culture of the Virgin Islands; Jacob, whose sense of being caught between worlds is embodied in his language; and the narrator, who looks down on these characters as they play the hands dealt to them by their parents and the politics of the time.  The plot emerges in pieces as the voices in turn impart history and perspective.

What was most interesting to me was the look at the annexation and "Americanization" of the islands from the perspective the islands' inhabitants.  It's a perspective that I, as a white US citizen, have never been encouraged to entertain.  So in the midst of this evocative novel we, as readers, are given information that tells us the US has never made good on the promise that the inhabitants of the US Virgin Islands are actually citizens.  The land has been closed off, the young men drafted in war and subjected to racism, the tourism and entertainment industries have marginalized or stereotyped the island culture.  Land of Love and Drowning pulls the rug out from under the beautiful, care-free paradise we are sold on the travel websites and makes us think about the people who truly live there.  As it should.

Dear FTC: I received an ARC of this book via a Goodreads First Reads giveaway and then I read a copy purchased through the Book Riot Riot Read subscription.

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