Tiphanie Yanique’s bewitching debut novel will make you believe in magic.
“Magic is everything. I actually think that most people walk around the world believing deeply in magic,” says Yanique, whose novel, Land of Love and Drowning, is just out. “Otherwise, how could you fall in love? Why would you have children? All these things that are completely illogical acts that we seek out, allow to happen. We hunt them down, and they have no sense in them. For me, magic is just honoring that reality.”
Her novel recounts the everyday enchantment of a notable Virgin Islands family, beginning at the turn of the 20th century. Before perishing in an unusual shipwreck, Capt. Owen Arthur Bradshaw begets three gifted children of exceptional beauty: Eldest daughter Eeona’s captivating visage could sink a thousand ships (and likely did the one), yet she remains unmarried. Family historian Anette has an incomplete talent for premonitions, sensing comings but not goings. Half brother Jacob is possessed of the ability to transcend position and place. Still, he can’t escape a star-crossed love. Jacob is the son of the captain’s lover, Rebekah, a sorceress in her own right: “She could make the blood in your body course saltwater—burn you from the inside out,” Yanique writes. “Erode your womb as if it were tin until the eggs inside rattled like a beggar shaking a cup.”
Yanique writes with a distinct lyricism that may conjure comparisons to Jamaica Kincaid. Born in St. Thomas, she was raised by her grandmother, a children’s librarian, who instilled an early love of storytelling. For top-tier material, there was no need to look further than family history: Her great-grandfather was a captain who famously went down with his ship, the Fancy Me, orphaning his daughter.
Indeed, the germ of the novel lies in history, not myth.Early on, her grandmother told her that “some people have to die before you can publish this book,” Yanique recalls, not because she was writing about anyone in particular, but because her grandmother “felt it was going to surprise, and maybe reveal not factual truths, but emotional truths, and she saw no reason to injure people who might not want those things revealed.” As it turns out, the novel took Yanique long enough to write that the people her grandmother was concerned about died.
She took 11 years to write Land of Love and Drowning. During that time, she earned an MFA from the University of Houston, moved to Brooklyn, became a wife and mother, and, in 2010, published How to Escape From a Leper Colony: A Novella and Stories. Honors include the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35, the 2010 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award and a Pushcart Prize.
“When you take 11 years to write a novel—I think maybe people should always take a long time—you can put so much in it,” she explains. “You can layer it, because you revise its focus. At one point, I’m focusing on myth, at another, I’m interested in motherhood. Sisterhood was a revision I was doing in Year 4. You can’t just drop a chapter in, you have to go back and revise entirely, so now I’ve got new concerns, new interests, and I’ve read new novels. Hopefully this makes for a novel that’s rich—with lots of things to talk about in an interview,” she jokes.
Each of the siblings takes a turn telling his or her story, interspersed with chapters told by an omniscient narrator. As this quartet careens through history and the inevitable collisions of island life, they revise their understandings of each other and themselves. For example, the revelation that the captain’s blood courses through Jacob’s veins sends Anette spinning:
I stand. Finally, I move. I breathing heavy-heavy, like I fighting for the air. That’s how it feel inside. I open my hand and let the petals fall silently to the ground, the mess of their guts sticking to my palms. My life just get ruin. Everything I love just get make a sin. Something coming like a wave and is to drown me this time.
In the face of various devastations, a Bradshaw may sink or swim—though they typically prove buoyant. The siblings live through the transition from Dutch to American rule and the subsequent development of the tourist trade. A third generation will inherit the implications of these Earth-shakings, along with the Bradshaw genes.
One of Yanique’s aims is to let readers know the Virgin Islands—her islands—more intimately. She cites Don’t Stop the Carnival, the comic novel by Herman Wouk, as an inspiration for Land of Love and Drowning—for opening a dialogue between native and outsider art.
But Don’t Stop the Carnival is all about the tourist gaze, she points out. “It’s about a guy who opens up a hotel on the island, an outsider catering to outsiders. The locals or natives are not given full representation,” she says. “Part of my hope was to respond to that in some way. Much of my novel is set in the same time period as his novel, but the people he writes about are sort of outside my novel.”
Most people who know about the Virgin Islands probably went on a cruise there, or maybe their parents honeymooned there. “The way that we go to India, to eat the food and learn history and culture, that’s not the way that we go to the Virgin Islands,” Yanique says. “Lay on the beach and drink margaritas: That’s what we want to do, and that’s what we’re told we’re supposed to do. I hope to inspire all of us, the natives and the tourists, to think about different ways to experience each other.”
Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York.