TIDE RUNNING by Oonya Kempadoo


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An impulsive and inchoate sexual ménage embodies the incompatibility of contrasting classes—in a relentlessly lush second novel from the Guyanese-British author (Buxton Spice, 1999).

On the Caribbean island of Tobago, 20-year-old Cliff Dunstan and his ebullient younger brother Ossi (a genial sex machine) drift between occasional employment and indolence, to the intermittent dismay of their forthright “Mudda” and disapproving sister Lynette (the unmarried mother of a two-year-old). The brothers fall into acquaintance with wealthy corporate attorney Peter Johnson and his smoldering biracial wife Bella, who invite the “boys” to their lavish home, wining and dining and seducing them, settling on the nubile (though sexually experienced) Cliff as a kind of erotic toy. An allegory of exploitation is suggested by numerous references to the wide social and economic gaps between the Johnsons and their plaything, perhaps best encapsulated in the tart remarks of the couple’s visiting Trinidadian friend SC (initials denote a rude sexual cognomen), who warns them against indigent blacks and pointedly confronts the frazzled Cliff (“How come you all reach so far, man?”). The bitter dénouement (the Johnsons’ money, then their car turn up missing, and suspicion inevitably falls on Cliff) is deadened by redundant courtroom scenes in which its already loose plot slackens even further. But the tale is energized by Kempadoo’s lovely language—especially in chapters from Cliff’s viewpoint—in a lilting patois filled with arresting usages (“gallery,” “jealous,” and “advantage” as verbs, and onomatopoetic action words like “slurk” and “squinny”) and hauntingly vivid word pictures (“Bright-color pirogues all ’round the jetty tippling like floating insects, bowed bamboo fishing poles like whiskers dipping”). Such moments (and there are many) create an aching impression of a languorous paradise unthinkingly appropriated and violated.

Kempadoo charms and entices, but his intriguing narrative is not fully sustained.

Pub Date: May 1st, 2003
ISBN: 0-374-27757-5
Page count: 224pp
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15th, 2003


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