The 12th and most autobiographical from Condé (Windward Heights, 1999, etc.) returns to her fictional roots, where generations of Caribbeans discover strength and dignity as they endure inhuman cruelties and emotional betrayals.
Desirada (the Desired) is a harshly beautiful island off Guadeloupe where the impoverished descendants of French political prisoners, lepers, and escaped slaves know that the good life must be anywhere else. In a series of vivid flashbacks, Marie-Noëlle, the light-skinned, unattractive, illegitimate daughter of Reynalda, a native of Desirada who was herself illegitimate, wonders about the boundless love that inspired Ranélise, a barren prostitute in the port town of La Pointe, to pull the pregnant, half-drowned, 15-year-old Reynalda from the sea, help her through a difficult birth, then nurture both her and her infant Marie-Noëlle. Showing no love for Marie-Noëlle, Reynalda leaves her with Ranélise and goes to Paris. Years later, having attained an education, a job as a social worker, and a lover with whom she has had a son, Reynalda demands that Marie-Noëlle join her in Paris. Mother and daughter remain estranged, though the adolescent Marie-Noëlle adores her half-brother Garvey and finds herself drawn to the philandering Ludovic, her mother’s lover. After tuberculosis and two years in a sanatorium, Marie-Noëlle is left alienated and emotionally dead. A hasty marriage to Stanley, a self-absorbed jazz musician, takes her to the slums of Boston, where she resumes her studies after Stanley’s suicide, becoming (like Condé) a professor of French literature. She returns one last time to Desirada to learn the truth about her origins and find out why Reynalda, now a successful French novelist, never gave her the affection she craved.
Awarded the 1999 Prix Carbet de la Caraibe, what could be a downbeat, angrily heroic, and grim capstone to Condé’s career insists that the only way for women to survive so much suffering, and truths too sad to set anyone free, is to “learn to invent a life.”