In Grace’s ambitious debut novel, secrets and generations-old lies tangle with a family’s 20th-century life in Jamaica.
Opening in 1907, this atmospheric narrative follows the life and death of Emma Ingram, a “proper English lady” living in Kingston, Jamaica, trapped in a violent marriage to Harry Ingram, an Indian immigrant. After Harry’s death, Emma’s life takes a different direction as she blazes a new life as a feminist leader with her lover (and Harry’s cousin) Opal. In succeeding generations, Emma and Opal’s descendants struggle with interpersonal difficulties and the specter of their ancestral home, as well as the specter of Emma herself, who appears to her granddaughter Sydney and serves as her constant companion. However, while spectral, Emma isn’t all-knowing, and the Ingram family line isn’t safe from either its forgotten history or the mysterious stranger lurking at the edges of their lives. The central narrative wouldn’t be out of place in a traditional Gothic novel, and Grace impressively evokes the teeming, humid atmosphere of Jamaica, successfully setting the stage for an outsized tale of romance and secrets. However, despite the adroit juggling of multiple subplots over decades, the novel struggles to cohere, mostly due to its point of view and word choices. The narrative voice slides in and out of omniscient third-person, at times seemingly addressing the audience directly, at other times taking an almost clinical remove from the action. Though summoning a Gothic tone, Grace sometimes writes in a voice that is oblique and erudite, blunting the emotional impact of her characters’ words and actions in formal diction that undermines the plot: “Inside were five Asian women dressed in splendid silk furisode kimonos of bright and elegant designs, sitting seiza-style, their palms pressed together, focused on an illuminated piece of paper hung inside a wooden box.” On occasion, the narrative cuts to the heart of a scene with concision and style, which makes its subsequent return to a self-consciously florid style all the more disappointing.
Excessive formality and slippery perspectives undermine this promising neo-Gothic novel.