Despite the cheerfully bright cover and inviting title (who can resist the happy-go-lucky Beatles song?), this is no flip-flops-and-salt-breeze beach read. Instead, Nicole Dennis-Benn’s scorching debut is both desperately sad and impossible to forget. Set against a rapidly changing Jamaica, where wealthy white developers push out poverty-stricken natives in order to build luxury hotels for tourists, Dennis-Benn focuses of the lives of three extraordinary black women, each struggling to survive in the hardscrabble fishing village of River Bank.
All of these women are trapped by who they are and who they yearn to be. Delores, the mother, pinches out a living selling souvenirs at the local marketplace — and in the past, her daughter Margot. Now an adult, Margot burns with resentment toward Delores and works at a luxury hotel. She’s determined to get a promotion or even become a manager, but instead, she finds her only recourse is pimping herself and other young girls to tourists. The one thing that bonds Delores and Margot is their laser focus on Thandi, Delores’s youngest, who bears the heavy burden of their hopes for the future. They pour all their money into Thandi, so she can go to college and become a doctor, the career they want for her, because then she’ll be able to repay them tenfold and guarantee their financial security. But Thandi doesn’t want to be a doctor. She wants to be an artist, and she’s already showing talent. “No one respects an artist,” Thandi knows, but she can’t help wanting to be one anyway.
Race, of course, plays a huge part in the novel’s drama. Thandi hates her black skin and considers it another layer to be peeled away. She stays out of the sun and sneaks over to Miss Ruby, who sells her creams to slather on and cover with plastic wrap to bleach herself white. But dark skin also has a benefit in Jamaica, plying the prostitution trade at the hotel and “satisfying the curiosity of foreigners,’’ many of whom have never been with a black woman. Only when Thandi meets Charles, a poor boy who finds her black skin beautiful, and who encourages and loves her, does Thandi begin to rethink everything she thought she knew.
But skin color isn’t the only thing that has a price. Gender identity also sets up intolerable roadblocks. Verdene is a wealthy, educated black woman who is also gay. She tended Margot when she was a child, and Margot as an adult intoxicates her. But locals mock Verdene as a witch, and though she truly loves Verdene, Margot knows that loving another women in River Bank could kill her career chances. Her deep conflict and need to keep their affair secret threatens to destroy both of them.
Dennis-Benn’s writing is as lush as the island itself. Delores comments on the young girls who “think a little skin-lightening will make the hoity-toity class see them as more than just shadows, slipping through cracks under their imported leather shoes.” As the island transforms, the “bulldozers appear overnight. They stand in place like resting mammoths, their blades like curved tusks.” You can literally feel the swampy heat of Jamaica or the chill of the air-conditioned hotels. But some readers might weary of the patois that Dennis-Benn streams throughout the book. Meant to give a truer sense of the rhythm and sounds of the place, instead, especially when pitched against the pure lyricism of the rest of her prose, it pulls you out of the story world.
Though the novel veers toward soap opera at times, Dennis-Benn knows how to make the women so complex that we believe every hairpin turn of her plot, even as it warp-speeds toward Greek tragedy. A shocking murder is committed; betrayals pile up as ambition is fueled; and all the tight threads of the women’s lives knot together and begin to dangerously fray. For them and for all of the struggling denizens of Dennis-Benn’s River Bank, success, love, belonging, and happiness have a terrible cost that goes way beyond the price of a plane ticket to their supposed paradise.
HERE COMES THE SUN
By Nicole Dennis-Benn
Liveright, 349 pp., $26.95
Caroline Leavitt’s newest novel “Cruel Beautiful World’’ will be published Oct. 4.