Racism, revolution and love roil the Caribbean island of Trinidad in this sprawling historical melodrama.
The cocoa plantation of Santa Clara is a wildly exotic cross-section of 18th-century Creole life. Owned by paternalistic Spaniard Don Diego and his children Jose and Juanita, the household includes Yei, a half-Indian, half-black medicine woman, Carmen and ElÃ©na, her twin daughters by an unidentified white man, and Louis, an eccentric French tutor and political radical. It’s a microcosm of easy-going, multicultural Trinidad, where slavery is relatively humane, the races mingle and a large population of free people of color live in relative prosperity. Enter Barry, a young Englishman with abolitionist leanings. He’s promptly smitten by the island and ElÃ©na, â€œthe most stunningly beautiful creature he had ever laid eyes on” and the embodiment of the â€œdazzling beauty of black women.” ElÃ©na, in turn, swoons at his ardent wooing–â€œto see you is to know all that is good and beautiful,” he gushes–and anti-slavery sentiments; his golden hair and piercing blue eyes don’t hurt either. Alas, the world won’t let these soulmates be: The French Revolution blows up and splits the planters into warring republican and royalist factions; the British capture the island and impose a draconian new slave code that sparks uprisings; Barry’s aristocratic family can be counted on to nix marriage to a mixed-race woman. The biggest obstacles, though, are the tremulous emotional miscues that keep the lovers from spitting out their true feelings. Meanwhile, Barry’s free black manservant Fist faces altogether more serious challenges as he seeks revenge for a murder. The tumultuous plot hews closely to melodramatic conventions, but Trinidadian novelist Belgrave handles them skillfully. She convincingly depicts a broad palette of social milieus and character types, from slaves to peers of the realm, using them to paint an engrossing portrait of island society in upheaval.
The result is a lush period romance in a troubled tropical paradise.