Reviews

Geoffrey PhilpThe Trip to Bountiful

By Geoffrey Philp

Simple acts. They add up. They add up until they become a life. A life filled with complications, setbacks, betrayals, and sometimes a little happiness. And from birth, this one life joins a web of family, friends, and acquaintances which extends to those who have yet to come and those who have joined eternity. “The unity is submarine,” as Kamau Brathwaite said in another context, the closest description I can apply to Patricia Powell’s fourth novel, The Fullness of Everything, a meditation on the intimate connections among relationships of blood and compassion, rendered in exquisite prose.

There are so many things I could say about The Fullness of Everything. I could say that the novel is about a history professor, Winston Rowe, who upon receiving news of his father’s imminent death, returns to Jamaica after a twenty-five-year absence only to discover that his father is still alive and has sired an “outside” child. And that the child, Rosa, possesses psychic abilities that allow her to sense the thoughts and feelings of those around her — including her dead father:

The plane had barely left the ground, had barely settled itself more firmly in the sky and levelled off, her ears had only just stopped popping when their father appeared wearing the same light blue bush-jacket with red embroidery on the pockets that he used to wear on Sundays for the afternoon meal.

I could also say that the novel’s overlapping narratives seamlessly exploit the differing points of view of Winston and his brother, Septimus, who has never recovered from the death of Althea, his twin sister, and is dealing with his wife’s infidelity:

In the hotel at Treasure Beach they make love, as this is the only language he knows, but when they are done, the chasm between them is even wider than before and he doesn’t know what to do with his wife, with his marriage, with his own damn self, with the disgust away in his chest.

But I would be telling only half of the story. Or, rather, it would be a pedestrian reading of the novel.

The Fullness of Everything is one of those rare novels that can be read for a well-told story, expertly plotted and developed, and which will leave you feeling good, not just because of the seemingly effortless resolution of the essential conflicts, but also for Powell’s masterful strokes of characterisation that lull the reader into identifying with the main characters, or at the very least into thinking that she knows people like the ones in the novel. Add to this gorgeous prose:

In the middle of the day when the sun is at its zenith, the light at its whitest, when there is no breeze at all stirring the world and all God’s creatures have come to a complete full stop — the dog is fast asleep under the mango tree, its mouth bubbling with foam; the cat is curled up underneath the bed licking herself slowly and yawning; the birds have taken refuge down by the river; the rooster is too stunned to crow; the cows have fallen to their knees in the fields; the flies don’t even bother to move out of the way of the swatter; the mosquitoes land on your arm and forget to sip — this when they come to the willow trees at the bottom of the garden, his mother periodically dozing off and then picking up the conversation again, mid-sentence.

If it seems I am overly enthusiastic (which no self-respecting critic should be), I am. Patricia Powell has written — yes, I’ll say it — a beautiful novel in every sense of the word. Against the background of her previous novels — Me Dying Trial (1993), The Pagoda (1998), and A Small Gathering of Bones(2003) — The Fullness of Everything continues the theme of healing to its logical conclusion. It’s an apt gift for a reader who has poured passion, tears, and laughter into this life, for she will be rewarded with well-crafted sentences and sensuous images in that other life of the imagination. Every word is measured, every emotion is earned without a hint of sentimentality — yet a sense of bounty remains. Sometimes I feel as if Powell is trying to tell the whole human story in these 240 pages, “pressed down, shaken together, and running over.” And sometimes, I believe. I believe.

The Caribbean Review of Books, July 2010

Geoffrey Philp is a Jamaican writer based in Miami. His next collection of poems, Dub Wise, will be published by Peepal Tree Press in September 2010.

 

 

 

“papa had to die to set us free…”

Tzarina T. Prater

In Patricia Powell’s latest novel, The Fullness of Everything, we learn that “[e]verything has its price, even love” (201). The novel explores the difficulty of reconciling anger and love as the central protagonist, Winston, comes to terms with the anger that he feels toward his family, his lover and, more importantly, himself.

Powell’s fourth novel opens with a nightmare: Winston dreams of his father’s death, a death precipitated by a sealed telegram from Kingston. Winston, a history professor at an unnamed North American university who “left like quashee,” is plagued by images of his “dead and bloated” father. After consulting with his best friend, Silas, Winston returns home after a twenty-five year absence to face his mother, his brother Septimus, and his dying father only to find one of his father’s many “outside children” living with his mother. At first Winston sees Rosa as a signifier of his mother’s inability to protect herself or the interests of her own children from his father’s violence. But with the death of the father, everything changes.

The death transforms the entire family. Winston’s mother had been a “brown-skinned, university educated” woman, whose educational success could not alleviate social pressures to perform the proper role of wife and mother. As a Caribbean woman, she is supposed to be maternal, heterosexual, and monogamous, and allow her husband sexual freedom and mobility. With the patriarch’s illness, incapacitation and death, the mother blossoms. Winston speculates, “she might even be in love with [his father] all over again” (52). The illness that “diminished” and finished the “great man” liberates the mother. She is appropriately dutiful, maternal, and long suffering, but when he departs, she moves on. Consistent with Powell’s oeuvre, this novel challenges limited images of Caribbean sexuality. Winston’s father is not reduced to an embodiment of pure evil or a “failure” due to an inability or refusal to be monogamous or retain a heteronormative family structure, nor is his mother represented as a sadomasochistic saint who enables her own exploitation. The Fullness of Everything does not offer such simplistic renderings of the family romance.

In the vein of classical narrative, Winston has a fraught relationship to his father. He is the legitimate first-born son, one would think a position of favor, but the patriarch hates this prodigal son. The sole indicator we have for the father’s animosity is Septimus’ description of young Winston’s “sissy walk” (123). The hint of effeminacy, in a nation where “being a man is everything,” makes him a target for abuse. As an adult, Winston is an academic struggling with his own history while involved romantically with Marie Jose, a white breast cancer survivor, who does not want to have children. When Winston announces his intent to keep Rosa, his relationship to Marie Jose is further “complicated”; but more significantly his father erupts one last time, lunges toward him, and dies.

Further complicating this novel’s exploration of “family” in the (neo)colonial context is the representation of Septimus, the younger, favored brother. Septimus is a mortician. He takes pleasure in giving the living back their dead, if only for a moment, but struggles with the emotional “deaths” in his family. Septimus mourns the loss of his twin sister and a failed relationship with his first wife and son. He has incredible anxiety about his second wife Fiona’s relationship with her former lover, Robbie Chen, a Chinese Jamaican plantation owner with whom she had two children. Through Septimus’ visions, we see the emotional cost of preserving colonial gender roles. After arriving in America for a visit to Winston and Rosa, Septimus imagines the dissolution of Fiona’s romantic relationship to Chen, who chose to marry a proper Chinese woman chosen by his parents instead of Fiona. Through a disruption of temporal and spatial order, the novel’s subplot explores the complex relationships between black, brown and Chinese Jamaicans. As members of the larger neocolonial household, these characters and their interaction represent a reconciliation of sorts with the history they were born into and participate in. Fiona confronts Chen, who is unable to “choose” to be a different kind of man and it is his incapacitation that allows Fiona to choose her husband. This subplot is one of the threads Powell uses to patch together a text that navigates through a history rife with complex familial relationships created by colonialism.

Rosa, the “outside child,” is a figure that Powell uses to further question filial bonds. She is special; she has “the gift.” She can commune with the dead and living in ways unaccounted for by models of rationality. Through Rosa, Winston and Septimus reattach the connective tissue between themselves and others. Rosa is the lost sister and child Winston has always wanted. She enables Septimus to articulate the pain of losing his father and rework the relationship that he has with his own “pretty” son. Rosa also embodies interiority, uncompromising rage, intellectual curiosity, and love. Powell’s outside child facilitates the family’s healing and reorganizing itself, thus metaphorizing the struggles of diasporic subjects to redefine themselves.

In death, the father’s spirit answers for his “wrongs” while his sons struggle with the violent history they inherit; they know “blows” and “hard words” not love. Both sons have to transform. Through Rosa they are able to rethink the sins of the father by seeing Rosa’s beauty as proof of the “good things” in their father. At the same time no one is left unscathed. None of the characters have a happy ending, and all outside children are not spiritual sepulchers. The novel focuses on the particular effects produced by colonialism on masculinity, femininity and the family in Jamaica and “elsewhere” without demonizing any of its subjects. In Powell’s latest offering we have a novel of complexity, of necessary breaks with fantasies of wholeness, new beginnings, and neat uncomplicated endings. The Fullness of Everything adds to Powell’s ongoing exploration of the effects of historical processes of colonialism on the contemporary diasporic subject, and out of that exploration she finds hope.

SX Salon, December, 2010

Tzarina T. Prater is an Assistant Professor of English at the City University of New York – LaGuardia Community College, has published articles on literature and film spectatorship, and is currently working on her book project, Cinematic Vernacular in Black Fiction.

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