“Really, though, what did Franz Kafka know about cockroaches?” Not much compared to Hatcher, who makes a group of roaches the narrator of her debut novel.
It isn't necessary to know the history of banana republics or labor movements to follow this bright novel, but it helps. For those who require a refresher course, the cockroaches (speaking in the royal “we”) offer a droll yet painstaking political and social history of a fictitious Caribbean island that runs parallel to political movements throughout history. Thankfully, a cavalcade of characters brings this history to life—most notably the cabbie/bartender Wynston Cleave, known as Professor Cleave by family, friends, and the cockroaches that permeate his taxi. Years earlier, Cleave had the misfortune of picking up a tipsy American heiress who then died in his car. Wrongly imprisoned for her death but now free, he is suspicious when he picks up a bedraggled couple, recently kicked off an American cruise ship. Suspicion soon turns to anxiety when a viral contagion overtakes the ship. A bloated body washed ashore ignites rumors, thoughtless acts, riots, and finally martial law. Hatcher’s training as a historian is evident in this well-woven novel, even if many of the secondary characters are indistinguishable from one another. However, it’s the cockroaches that are the true stars of the show. Sharp-witted, well-read, and with a long view of history, their voice is dignified, erudite, and often funny: “Woe to us, who suffer the curse of stubby little wings, vestigial appendages suitable for neither flying nor fanning ourselves on a hot day (One can hopefully appreciate our love of air conditioning in light of this one regrettable aspect of our anatomy"). It is wise to heed the narrator’s observations, on Hatcher's fictional world as well as political history and human shortcomings.
A Greek chorus of cockroaches amuses and admonishes in this admirable first novel about the human cost of colonialism.