BODIES OF WATER by Michelle Cliff


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Middling stories, often with a pressing sense of social cause beneath them, from the Jamaican-born author of the novel No Telephone to Heaven (1987). Of the two best pieces here, ""Columbia"" alone is set in Jamaica, and although it attempts beautifully to evoke the rundown social atmosphere of postcolonialism, little impact arises from its tale of a houseboy who is forced by his employer to kill his pet doves for food. More fully characterized is the longish title story, about a brother and sister who, in adulthood, think back over their lives (partly in letters to one another), particularly to the deep trauma born in their immigrant family with the brother's early discovery (back in 1959) of his homosexuality. Other stories less fully take on lives of their own, as in the rather exercise-like ""The Ferry,"" about the alienation and anger of a teen-aged boy whose father died an alcoholic, or ""Screen Memory,"" about a girl who could pass for white, became an actress, and now reflects back on her life from the bed of a drying-out ward. Some pieces are almost entirely theme-driven, lacking the wellspring of centrally vital or individually authenticated characters at all--as in ""A Hanged Man,"" an intense and sometimes confusing pastiche in prose about pre-Civil War hypocrisy and slave torture; ""A Woman Who Plays Trumpet Is Deported,"" about a Black American woman who seeks artistic freedom in Europe but then dies in a Nazi concentration camp; or ""American Time, American Light,"" about a Vietnam veteran who--wandering from a VA hospital--dies in an abandoned farmhouse in New England. Cliff's stories seem often to grow first out of socially conscious ideas, which are then superimposed on narratives that frequently creak under the weight--as in the over-complexly portentous ""Burning Bush"" (the mass murder of her oppressive family by a 75-year-old woman) or in ""Election Day 1984,"" which, in spite of its best efforts, remains watery and tendentious. A capable writer in search of her real material.

Pub Date: July 16th, 1990
Publisher: Dutton