Trinidadian writer Lovelace (The Wine of Astonishment, 1984, etc.) returns after a long hiatus with a tale that starts out as an affecting Caribbean version of It's A Wonderful Life, then disappointingly turns into a flat riff on race and the past. Alford George, the youngest son of a poor Trinidadian farm worker, is a slow starter. He doesn't speak until he's six, and that's only after his mother, fearing she's being punished for neglecting her African roots, consults a traditional healer. Later, Alford dreams of leaving Trinidad and going to England, where so many islanders head to make better lives. England is for him ``more than a place,'' it is ``a mission, a Sacred Order that brought him into meaning, into Life,'' and he systematically begins to prepare himself to emigrate. His early school years, however, are not propitious: He is neither a good student nor an athlete. But Alford perseveres, studying the dictionary, listening to the BBC, running errands for teachers, and becoming an umpire. By his 20s, he's a respected schoolteacher, able to keep order and inspire children, but his undimmed dream of leaving the island is repeatedly deferred as he gives his earnings to his father to build a house, then is drawn into local controversies. Appalled by an educational system that neglects most of its students, he eventually mounts a hunger strike in the capital to draw attention to the problem. Soon Alford's courted by politicians who encourage him to stand for parliament. And it's here that the story begins to lose its charm and vigor: Various voices, including those of the descendants of Asian indentured laborers, white planters, and slaves, break into the narrative to tell their own stories, diluting the novel's impact. Though Alford realizes that his mission in life is in fact to make life better on his island, his epiphany has been greatly diminished. An evocative story that tries too hard.