Lester’s (Marvels, 2018, etc.) first novel, set in Jamaica in the 18th century, reveals that paradise can be a mixed bag.
In 1762, plucky Martha Grant is offered a proposal of marriage by her cousin, Henry Mason, a Jamaican planter. She’s finding herself adrift after the death of her own true love, and fearing spinsterhood, she accepts Henry’s offer. Now she’s ready to fall in love with her new home of Jamaica, and the rest of the book mostly consists of her letters home to England and entries from her diary. Compared to his wastrel brother Jonas, Henry initially seems to be a good man, but readers quickly learn that he’s a tyrannical, arrogant, self-centered monster. Nonetheless, Martha is determined to make the best of it. Then Henry impregnates his half sister Pearl, whose mother is an African slave. In an elaborate ruse, it’s made to seem that the offspring, Peter, is actually Martha’s child. Things become particularly insufferable for Martha when Jonas dies and his widow, the outlandishly crude Antoinetta, comes to live with the Masons. This is Lester’s first novel, but she’s a much-published writer of biographies and histories, and it shows. Martha is a wonderfully well-rounded character—a romantic and an idealist but not at all naïve; she ekes out small victories with the brutish Henry and always leaves her surroundings just a tad better than how she found them. Lester also effectively shows how the Jamaican settlers have the trappings of civilization—such as a Governor’s Ball and expensive finery—but at bottom, they’re revealed to be ruthless materialists and exploiters. The childish and grasping Antoinetta—representing the worst of the colonial infestation—strikingly contrasts with the beautiful, childlike Pearl, a happy and generous local. Interspersed are snarky poems, presumably from Martha’s witty imagination, which skewer the society’s pretensions and its matrons’ cattiness in a kind of off-key Greek chorus.
A historical novel with an exotic locale, well-wrought historical details, tidbits about flora and fauna, and wonderful characters.