MADAM FATE by Marcia Douglas


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A lyrical evocation of Jamaican women's lives makes this debut, indebted to myth and magical realism, more prose poem than fully realized novel. Douglas ambitiously attempts both a history and a present-tense accounting of life for island women over the whole span beginning with the time of slavery. A range of narrators helps out. They include Bella, a protean figure who at will assumes varying identities; Ida, an old woman hospitalized at the Garden, a local asylum; Claudia, a teacher looking for her real mother; Muriel, gone to work in New York; and her teenage daughter Gracie, left behind in Jamaica. These voices are interwoven like the hardy strands in a basket, but something's too calculated and predictable in the stories that are told. Emphasizing evocation more than action, the novelist relies on tired ethnic and feminist icons--wronged women (Gracie is raped by a neighbor); herbal remedies (Madam Fate is a plant that cures all ills); crafts (Ida's a skilled carver of calabashes); and a female Creator (disturbed by a vision of slave ships, she created Jamaica). Ida, born with a limp, recalls a childhood marred by her deformity, her marriage, her three dead babies, and by the voices--of dead slaves and lost souls--she hears in her special calabash. Muriel, cleaning offices in New York, writes to Gracie describing her difficult life there and her past as a prostitute. Gracie, missing her mother, befriends an old woman, who asks her to search for the magical Madam Fate plant. Claudia continues to look for the mother who abandoned her at birth, and Bella has cameos as a voice from the past. No resolutions, just a cumulatively patchy portrait of women struggling to survive. Carefully wrought prose that never really resonates.

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 1999
Page count: 304pp
Publisher: Soho