Watson uses one family to chart the history of Jamaica to the present and beyond.
The history of Jamaica plays out in the background of this generational account of the Johnson family. The novel follows the Johnson clan from slavery to political prominence through the ups and downs of the island’s shifting society. Their saga mirrors the tensions—between the subsistence and ambition, rebellion and assimilation—that characterized the development of Jamaica as a self-articulating society. From the upheaval and fragility of the 19th century to the corporate structures and class aspirations of the 20th to the political machinations of the early 21st (including a glimpse into the future 2030s), the Johnsons attempt to succeed in a system that, while dynamic, continues to bear striking similarities to the original plantation model. There are still haves and have-nots, gatekeepers and collaborators, utopian dreams and brutal realities. As said by narrator and Johnson descendant Brianna Bedward, who’s introduced in the novel’s framing device: “To the extent that the fortunes of the Johnson family ran parallel to those of the island of Jamaica, this is also a story about Jamaica, and inasmuch as Jamaica is a part of the world, it is a story about the world.” Watson admirably weaves the Johnsons’ personal narratives into the larger happenings of Jamaican life, and the cameos by historical figures and institutions make the novel seem an authentic part of the island’s biography. The chapters sometimes drag as less-important decades are accounted for and various offspring emerge and are dispatched, but the overall arc of the family is satisfying in the way a single protagonist’s might be. The future-set sections are perhaps overly optimistic (though fun), and didacticism is always apparent: e.g., “The culture of the slave society promoted promiscuity” since slave owners and masters “hoped that in this way the women might have more children and every child born in slavery became the asset of his mother’s owner.” Yet the story is engrossing enough that its flaws are largely forgivable.
Impressive familial saga set against the throes of Jamaican history.