Spark (Coconuts for the Saint, 1994) sets a vacationing Jewish woman’s journey toward self-discovery within the much larger context of social, political, and economic relations between Jews and blacks on the island of Barbados.
Charlotte Lewin’s grandfather sends her to Barbados with an antique menorah stored for years in his temple outside Boston. Charlotte’s supposed mission is to decide whether the menorah belongs to Bridgetown’s Jewish congregation or to the Bajan Institute, a museum devoted to native culture, which claims the menorah was crafted by a now-famous slave artisan. Her real mission, though, is to recover from the trauma of her sister’s death six months ago. After an awkward, talky introductory chapter, Spark juggles Charlotte’s narrative with that of Wayne Deare—an MIT graduate student who crossed paths with Charlotte in the Boston hospital where her sister died, then returned to Barbados to nurse his dying father. He now has a part-time job at the Bajan Institute, where his current assignment is to get possession of the menorah. Wayne’s conflicted thoughts and feelings are endearing, while Charlotte remains a stilted, self-conscious creation who seems like the author’s stand-in. Her first night in Barbados, Charlotte falls for a handsome young man the islanders believe is a “duppy” (a ghost not unlike the dybbuk of Jewish lore), but who is merely the ever-wandering son of the Lazars, leaders of the Jewish congregation. Meanwhile, Wayne and his brother have been hired by younger son Josh Lazar to parachute into a group as part of an anniversary celebration. When Josh’s parachute doesn’t open, Wayne’s brother is unfairly charged with murder. Tensions between Jews and blacks flare, and the menorah becomes a political football representing a fascinatingly ambiguous situation. Unfortunately, while she portrays the black community in all its complexity, Spark’s depiction of island Jews seldom rises above stereotype.
An ambitious, intermittently successful attempt to merge political musing, character study, and metaphor-studded ghost story.