Two Jamaican women are affected by their very different relationships with Errol Flynn in Margaret Cezair-Thompson’s second novel. One, the teen girl Ida, is seduced by Flynn and left pregnant and penniless when he leaves the island. The other is May, the daughter whom Ida bears then must abandon to find a job in New York. The setting of the story is Jamaica, a Caribbean jewel with a melange of races that combine to produce beautiful and aristocratic Ida and May. As light-skinned women with European features, they are envied and scorned by darker-skinned Jamaicans; as Jamaicans, they are considered exotic but lower-class than the Europeans they encounter. May and Ida, though, are rooted in the Jamaican culture and countryside, and it is in familiar places that they both eventually find refuge.
Ida’s is a story of rags to riches – the teen daughter of a feckless entrepreneur who hopes to parlay his friendship with Errol Flynn into a successful movie theater, she grows up in comfortable, though hardly secure, surroundings. Her circumstances decline drastically when her father discovers she is pregnant and suffers a stroke; left to provide for him and for an infant daughter, Ida falls into the kind of poverty that forces her to leave her home. In New York, she encounters a friend of Flynn’s, Baron Karl von Ausberg, who marries her and elevates her to a life of tiaras, evening gowns, and international travel.
By contrast, May is left to be raised by the poor though tight-knit community Ida has left behind. When that community falls apart and May is threatened, Ida returns and takes up her role as the island’s leading social figure. May finds herself catapulted from status as an outsider in a poor black community to becoming an outsider in a wealthy white community. At the same time, the coming break from their status as a British colony, and the turmoil of the Sixties leaves the young adults of May’s generation – black and white – searching, experimenting, and making terrible decisions. The two circumstances come together at the home that May, Ida, and Karl share, and change the three of them in unexpected ways.
With Jamaica and its people, Cezair-Thompson creates a compelling setting. While Ida and her father Eli are swept up in Flynn’s vision of an island Paradise, and May grows up in the shadow of coming political unrest, it is the countryside and culture that Cezair-Thompson best captures with her Jamaican-accented dialogue, intricate descriptions of the cooking, the feel of the salty trade winds, and the rhythms of the street music that would evolve into reggae. From Ida’s grandmother, living in the Blue Mountains and practicing traditional medicine to the legends of ghosts haunting Flynn’s island home, a sense of timelessness flows through the story.
Flynn’s presence here is not strictly necessary. Except for his reputation as a seducer and abandoner of young girls and the devil-may-care attitude he brings from his screen persona to his real life, his role could have been played by any European who found Paradise, then tried to bend it to suit himself. His name is, however, a shortcut to those qualities, and Cezair-Thompson delves deepest into it in a scene portraying the lone meeting between May and her father. Flynn is not alone in his self-centeredness, though, and many of the older characters become unlikeable over the course of the story. One of the breakthrough moments comes near the end when May realizes that at the age of twenty-six she is for the first time responsible for another person. At that point, Cezair-Thompson accomplishes a real coup. She succeeds in taking two of the least attractive people in the story and redeeming them in ways that are completely unexpected. Needless to say, revealing them here would be a spoiler, so you’ll have to read the book for yourself.
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