Unburnable is a multigenerational story that is a play on one of the curses in the Bible: the sins of the father will be visited onto the children unto the third and fourth generation. In this story, the sins of the mother is visited onto her daughter’s daughter.
The mother is Matilda, the dark skinned woman who is accused of practicing obeah but who might just be a faith healer practicing primitive medicine in the hills of Dominica’s Maroon village called “Up There”. She meets and falls in love with Simon, one of the last remaining Caribs, and together they have a daughter named Iris. Because they are living in a deeply religious country, they send their daughter to live in town where she can attend church and school and be raised by devout Catholics but Iris gets involved in a love triangle with an older man and returns home, disgraced and broken. Later, it is is Iris’ daughter, Lillian, who escapes Dominica and makes a life for herself in Washington D.C., leaving behind the memory of her mother and grandmother but not the stigma of her family history. Eventually, she returns to Dominica to try to understand the older women’s actions and try to clear their names so she can also clear hers.
The author excelled at describing Caribbean history – the lingering effects of slavery, the West African traditions and its influence on music, life and moral ethics. With John being a native of another island, the well crafted story speaks to both her research and the fact that many island characteristics are replicated in other West Indian islands. The alternating time lines – flipping between the three women’s histories as they are about to collide – was a very effective method of building suspense and dispensing information and the voices seemed appropriate during each era. The character development in the early phase of the book was well done and if there is any flat character, it is Teddy, the supportive friend-turned-boyfriend who the author probably had to restrain herself to not turn him into a stereotypical hero. But the struggle that each character faces is very well depicted, the multiple perspectives allowing the reader into each one’s motives.
The book felt like it fell into three sections for me and I had a very different reaction during each one:
- During the groundwork building, I identified with the main character, Lillian. I saw our similarities and felt like I could live vicariously through her. Religious themes feature strongly and Lillian, a loner, starts to deal with issues she would much rather leave behind even as she tries to understand why she is the way she is. My rating was an optimistic 3 to 4 star at this point.
- Moving to the climax of the book – Lillian’s decision to return home unprompted by anything other than her desire to confront her past and move on, the various parts of the story started coming together. Here, dark practices become more dominant than religion, there is discussion of obeah and moral issues that I don’t have a personal knowledge of but have heard about my whole life and the book got even more interesting as I realized Lillian is definitely not me. I was excited and at the same time, fearful. I started to wonder about the author’s decision to not just have Lillian return home alone. Instead, she had brought a man into her female-oriented family, a man who didn’t feature in her original story, who wasn’t even from her country and so couldn’t understand everything she was experiencing, and worse a man that wasn’t even hers. I was afraid of why he featured so prominently in the story and desperate for the story to not become a cliched hero-rescue. But the depth and range of emotions I was feeling at this point, made this part close to a 5 star rating.
- Then came the final revelations, the explanations and what should have been the perfect resolution but wasn’t. It wasn’t what I expected, or what I wanted and not even what I was willing to accept. There were questions I had that didm’t get answered and some of the answers provided didn’t match what the book had been leading up to. I’d like to rewrite at least the last two pages of this story and so in an attempt to reconcile my disappointment, I knocked it back down to a 3 star rating. Sad!
Overall, I’d recommend this book. I was looking for an author whose last name was a common first name and I stumbled across this title and requested it from the library. I am glad I read it. Unburnable is John’s first and only novel so far. I hope she writes more because I’d love to see what else she comes up with