A schoolgirl seeks answers when her city explodes after long-simmering tension.
Émilienne is the daughter of a bureaucrat in French-occupied Guadeloupe in 1967. The youngest of nine siblings—all named for their ambitious yet ineffectual father—she is her daddy’s princess. Her family regards the 9-year-old as precocious, in need of protection. Outsiders consider her disarming, a girl who freely communes with the dead. Because of this, Émilienne serves as the novel’s medium, calling upon those who have passed for answers after she witnesses unspeakable violence. The novel is based on a real event that occurred in Pointe-à-Pitre—three days in May when ongoing negotiations between bureaucrats and a construction workers’ union devolved into the massacre Émilienne witnesses. Multiple voices, living and dead, are woven throughout, following the form of a Creole square dance called a quadrille. The rich assemblage of perspectives gives a pulse to an event formerly unacknowledged in French history. The larger backdrop to the story is the way imperialism grates in the present, affecting everyone from the innocent to the ignorant to the complicit. On one hand, there is Émilienne’s beloved schoolteacher, Madame Ladal, who disappears following a classroom visit from a man who makes sinister assurances: “Don’t mind me, children. I didn’t come here for you.” On the other is Émilienne’s Uncle Justin, who declares, “I didn’t even know anything was going on in La Pointe. Not a clue.” In between are the silently compliant and selective snitchers, whatever brings the greater reward. Translated from the French by Miller, Dambury’s ear for dialogue buoys her novel, though the labored use of the quadrille as an organizing device is a distraction.
A chorus of voices brings humanity to a little-known moment in Caribbean history.