The spirit of Bob Marley dominates this novel, which evokes the rich, bottom-heavy sounds of Marley’s music.
You can’t tell the living and the dead here without a score card, and a score card would be too linear a device for this magical realist tale spun by Douglas (Notes from a Writer’s Book of Cures and Spells, 2005, etc.). It’s hard to know which of the myriad narrative strands one should examine first, but we’ll start with the deaf woman named Leenah, who met and fell in love with Marley in 1977 when both were exiles from their Jamaican homeland living in London. Years later, the soul of the reggae superstar and icon of Rastafarianism is implanted into the body of a homeless man huddling in a clock tower in Kingston. The man is referred to throughout the book as a “Fall-down” or a “fallen angel,” and when Leenah, now back home, sees him on the streets, she alone recognizes him immediately as Marley, the father of her daughter, Anjahla. The clock tower itself has a past life of sorts: Centuries before, it was the site of a tree where a black slave boy was hung and was known from that time on as the “Half Way Tree.” Past and present become likewise intertwined throughout the book as such historic personages as Britain’s King Edward VII, black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey, and Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie (referred to throughout as His Imperial Majesty or by the initials “H.I.M.”) make in-and-out appearances, sometimes to confer or get high with the reincarnated Marley in the clock tower. Douglas’ audacious, willful blend of surreal imagery, historic facts, and vividly rendered monologues from all her characters, whether Jamaican-born or not, seems at times to get away from her. Somehow, the spiraling, unwieldy mix is held together by its recurrent invocation of musical motifs borrowed from classic Caribbean pop (references to “background singers,” “dub-side chanting” and “bass-lines”) and, most of all, by the poetic fire of the author’s imagery. When at one point Leenah remembers the living Bob Marley as having “cheekbones which could balance an egg or a flame or a revolution,” it’s almost as if he’s in front of the reader, preparing to let loose a musical cry for freedom.
Think of this book as a haunted island with spectral voices and inscrutable mysteries.