THE PAGODA by Patricia Powell


A Novel
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Like actors who wear masks not only to hide their identities but also to create new ones, the characters in this luminously rendered third novel (Small Gathering of Bones, not reviewed, etc.) by Jamaican-born Powell are not what they seem. The story is set in the Jamaica of the late 1800s when poverty was endemic, whites were in control, and racial tensions were exacerbated by the presence of indentured East Indian and Chinese laborers. Married to white Miss Sylvie, the Chinese Lowe, who runs a small store, had always been good to his customers. But one night as he started to write a letter to his daughter, Liz, the shop was burned down with a white man, Cecil, trapped inside. Depressed, Lowe couldn—t continue the letter, of course, a letter intended to tell Liz the truth about her birth and the past. Now, Lowe’s life has no purpose, and his long masquerade seems even more futile as he finds himself recalling his childhood in China and the closeness to his father that ended when he was a teenager and his father betrayed him. He recalls how he became a stowaway, and how he was rescued, only to be raped by Cecil, the ship’s captain, who discovered that Lowe was really a woman. In Jamaica, she again became Lowe, a man, set up with a shop and wife by Cecil. Lowe’s despair eases only when he decides to build a pagoda for the island Chinese, but he now finds Sylvie has her own secrets to share. As confessions and confusions multiply, Lowe has an affair with Joyce, a black woman—-but Sylvie, haunted by her past, runs away. Now Lowe, missing Sylvie, whom he realizes he truly loves, finally writes to Liz. Suffused with grief and regret, the letter tells his story and reveals his conviction that he’s never lived fully but “always through some kind of veil.” The ending is quiet but an appropriately elegiac counterpoint to the preceding emotional turmoil. Impressively conceived. (Book-of-the-Month Club selection)

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-679-45489-6
Page count: 256pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1st, 1998


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by Lorna Goodison