The Ladies Are Upstairs

Merle Collins. Peepal Tree (IPG, dist.), $17.95 trade paper (160p) ISBN 978-1-84523-179-8
In Caribbean poet and novelist Collins's newest, a collection comprising a novella ("Rain Darling") and a novel-in-stories, the works' memorable female leads—Rain and Doux, respectively—face numerous hardships on the island of Paz in the 1930s. With her parents already in America, Rain looks to the future when her father—whom she has never met—will visit and whisk her away to New York. However, she soon realizes that the distance between Paz and Brooklyn begets emotional spans that might be impossible to traverse. The stories of the impoverished and resolute Doux Thibaut take up the majority of the book, opening with the 11-year-old girl trading her cornrow-braiding expertise for access to textbooks she can't afford. In addition to her family's financial woes (her mother makes a meager living as a clothes-washer), Doux's illegitimacy weighs on her, as does the sectarian violence between Catholic and Protestant, white and black, and the various strata of a rigid caste system. As Doux attempts to follow her mother's lofty ethical injunctions regarding work and behavior, she discovers daily wisdoms of her own as she moves from job to job. The narrative progresses to Doux as an old woman being shuttled between her children's homes in Boston, as the still-feisty octogenarian reflects on her dynamic life. Collins (Angel) was born in Aruba and grew up in Grenada, and the stories' lived dynamism reflects as much—the struggles are believable, the hopes universal, and the dialect and rhythms of Caribbean life are richly realized. (Mar.)
Reviewed on: 03/19/2012
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