Two Jamaican immigrants find love and success together in America selling a popular tonic, but the pain they left on the island still impedes their happiness.
Linton McMann, the illegitimate son of a plantation owner and rum distiller, has grown up with his oppressive father refusing to acknowledge him publicly. Daisy Wellstead has no shortage of family in Kingston but just as much misfortune. After being raped, she finds herself traumatized and in an imperfect marriage with two children and an uncaring husband. As revolution brews on the island, individual tragedies force both to flee to America, where, by chance, they meet. Once married, Linton and Daisy start a profitable business selling a Jamaican tonic called roots, allowing them to finally live comfortably in their new life together. Yet both remain deeply unhappy, still haunted by what they left behind. Separated into two books, Francis’ debut opens strongly; its first half demonstrates a remarkable gift for ambiance and imagery. The novel captures Jamaica in the 1930s, as well as the island’s political and meteorological climate, while also painting a picture of New York. The skillful depiction of the tragic and violent is noteworthy—it’s always powerful and succinct but never exploitative. Daisy’s victimization and Linton’s tragic parentage evoke the same tone as a Greek tragedy. These themes and the impressive atmosphere aren’t as present in the more heavy-handed second half, which tracks a more introspective Daisy and Linton. Despite this incongruity, the novel’s two books complement each other, and they share the same brisk pacing. The lively dialogue makes ample use of Jamaican patois, along with slang and colloquialisms; such linguistic flourishes improve this moving portrayal of a troubled couple.
Simplistic execution belies an emotionally charged narrative shaped by the main characters’ pasts and by Jamaican history.