Antigua native Marie-Elena John graduated as the City College of New York's first black woman valedictorian and later earned a master's degree from Columbia University. A former Africa development specialist, she lives with her husband and two children in Washington, D.C., and Antigua.
John takes readers into Caribbean culture and contemporary black America to explore family and oppression in this affecting but flawed debut novel. Lillian, a 30-something native of Dominica, now an activist in Washington, D.C., suffered a breakdown at 14 after discovering the identity of her birth mother, Iris: the beautiful, insane village prostitute whose own mother, the famous healer Matilda, was convicted of multiple murder and hung. Sent to live with her aunt in New York, Lillian grows up shielded from her history, avoiding troubling questions about herself and keeping friends distant. Her only real friend is Teddy Morgan, a self-absorbed historian she's pined after since their college days. Twenty years after leaving Dominica, Lillian is determined to return, in hopes of learning what happened to her mother, grandmother and herself-and she's determined to bring Teddy with her. John switches between Lillian's present day and the mid-century lives of Matilda and Iris, who are warm, vibrant characters and a welcome contrast to Lillian's gloom-and-doom. Aloof from the outset, it's never clear why, after 20 years without contact, Lillian wants to investigate her past, and her calculated manipulation of Teddy makes her hard to feel for. However, strong writing and interesting supporting characters should keep readers occupied through the end. (Apr.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
The psychological damage caused by not knowing one's personal history comes center stage in John's alluring debut. Thirty-seven-year-old Lillian Baptiste, a native of Dominica, has lived in the United States for 23 years and has never returned home. But she has never stopped questioning-maybe even obsessing over-what happened to the women in her family. Although Lillian does not have many facts, she knows that her mother, a prostitute, died in prison shortly after visiting the home the child shared with her stepmother. She also knows that her maternal grandmother, an alleged murderer and purveyor of Obeah, was hung. Was her grandmother truly guilty? What happened at her trial? Had her mother been trying to confide something before passing on? When Lillian eventually returns to the island, she is accompanied by her longtime friend Teddy, a scholar of African culture. Together, they slowly uncover what tran-spired. The result is a page-turner, melding magical realism with historical fact and fascinating social observations about the politics of class, gender, and race. Although the denouement is somewhat unsatisfying, this layered, compassionate novel is highly recommended.-Eleanor J. Bader, Brooklyn, NY Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.