‘Land of Love and Drowning,’’ Tiphanie Yanique’s debut novel, is a saga, though not strictly speaking a generational one. The story concentrates on the lives of two sisters: Eeona Bradshaw, heiress of a rarefied old-world gentility, though without the wealth required to support it, and the younger Anette, born on the eve of the family’s collapse into financial ruin. With less educational opportunity, Anette has a saltier sensibility, expressed in a bawdy West Indian patois — while Eeona insists on the most proper English and frets about ladies crossing their legs. Much of the social spectrum of the Virgin Islands lies between these two women. Yanique has set out to write the epic of this region and culture, and in fact this book deserves better than to be labeled with last-century publishing buzzwords.
There’s darkness in the past of the two sisters, as well as catastrophe in their futures. Captain Owen Arthur Bradshaw, descended from West African slaves, is established in St. Thomas and finds his wife Antoinette Stemme in Anegada, a numinous atoll ringed with reefs, barely sustaining itself above sea level. That Antoinette is pregnant by another man she meant to marry is a problem easily solved: “Swift as anything,” in Anette’s reconstruction, “captain and girl wash that other man baby away.” Is it true? And in what sense? Anette’s comment could apply to the entire story: “This ain true history. I just saying that given what we know about the place and about the time, my version seem to have a truth in somewhere. Is just a story I telling, but put it in your glass and drink it.”
Antoinette gets in the habit of washing her womb; after the first-born, Eeona, there are no more children until Anette — too stubborn to yield to the strongest abortifacient. Owen, meanwhile, has not only stepped out with a practitioner of obeah sorcery, Rebekah McKenzie, engendering a son, Jacob Esau, but also got himself hooked in an illicit relationship with the ethereally beautiful Eeona. The prospect of her marriage disturbs him so much that he wrecks his ship on the Anegada reefs and drowns, destroying the family fortune.
Here is the stuff of legend, tremendously amplified by the oral history culture of the islands. Magical realism might better have been called legendary realism from the start. Caribbean novelists have not much deployed it (they have their own variations on obeah to work with), but Yanique has helped herself to Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s toolbox. Rebekah has a hoof like a cow; Eeona, from girlhood, is possessed of radiant silver pubic hair, which somehow energizes the whole of her otherworldly beauty. Anegada, mystical land of origin, is populated by mer-people called the Duene, who wear their feet backward and are charged with keeping wildness in the world.
There are strands of social realism in this mix. In 1917, when the Virgin Islands were sold by Denmark to the United States, the region had a well-established “rainbow” population with African and European bloodlines thoroughly mixed. Its powerful class system didn’t much depend on race; Eeona and Anette connect to different classes because of different inclinations and upbringing, not skin tone or texture of hair. US citizenship conferred the privilege of fighting in American wars, as well as exposure to Jim Crow racism in the military and on the mainland. After World War II, mainland whites arrived in droves to buy up land and insidiously oppress the islanders toward a second-class citizenship in their own country.
In the world Yanique has constructed, the weaving of legend is the best defense of cultural identity. Childless Eeona pumps her niece Youme full of “the real, but not true, stories of the Bradshaws. Things Eeona would never tell to anyone. She would not even tell them to Youme, really. She waited until the girl was asleep so that they went into her dreams.” Improbable? Maybe not. In an afterword Yanique discloses that many of the most farfetched details come from her own family history; “The rest is magic and myth.”
Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa were fascinated with Faulkner as young men, in part because of the American’s success in creating a completely-realized parallel universe out of the American South of his imagination. Yanique has borrowed a few pieces of furniture from the Southern Gothic attic. In place of Faulkner’s preoccupation with miscegenation (sheer nonsense in Yanique’s fictional world), there is incest, a recurring motif among the Bradshaws. But is it always a bad thing? The love of half-siblings Anette and Jacob Esau begets Youme, whose clubfoot makes her a real-world avatar of the mythical Duene, and whose proud beauty becomes a totem for the islanders’ struggle to take back their own. Small islands can be incestuous places, and incest may stand for a certain way the mind has to fertilize — and fortify — itself. This novel builds its best effects rather slowly, but in the end Yanique succeeds in evoking the panorama of the Virgin Islands in a voice all her own.Madison Smartt Bell’s most recent book is “Zig Zag Wanderer.’’ He teaches at Goucher College and can be reached at email@example.com.