There’s a bit of the buccaneer in Margaret Cezair-Thompson’s approach to her second novel, The Pirate’s Daughter. Setting her story against the steamy intersection of glamorous Hollywood and old-time Jamaica, she plunders history and pillages lives to tell an intricate tale of love and betrayal. The result is a glittering trove of fact, history, and fancy, which the author hands to her readers in a glorious, often untidy, heap.
The story opens with Ida Joseph, a beautiful 13-year-old girl who lives with her parents in Port Antonio, a rustic town at the foot of Jamaica’s Blue Mountains. It’s 1946, and the American movie star Errol Flynn has just wrecked his sailboat off the coast. Ida’s father, Eli, is both justice of the peace and a taxi driver. When Flynn, taken with Jamaica’s lush beauty, decides to buy a home there, Eli’s just the fellow to drive him around and take care of the legal odds and ends.
Ida manages to tag along when Eli drives to town to pick up Flynn for one of his house-hunting expeditions. Within minutes of meeting the visitor, whom Jamaica’s daily newspaper has anointed “The World’s Handsomest Man,” Ida sees both a charismatic matinee idol and an ordinary guy.
They waited in the hotel lounge for ten minutes before Errol Flynn came down. The hotel workers and few guests had already gotten used to him; no one gaped. There were glances, though, and everything seemed to slow down around him.
He was larger than Ida had imagined. Looking down at his sandals, she spotted hair on his toes.
With Ida’s help, Flynn finds a deserted island that fits his fantasies of Jamaican life. He uses his fortune, earned in swashbuckling films, to build Bella Vista, a sprawling pink-and-white mansion surrounded by patios, pools, and gardens. It’s there that he entertains Hollywood friends like Marilyn Monroe, Truman Capote, and Tony Curtis. And it’s there that he starts an affair with 16-year-old Ida and gets her pregnant.
Frightened of another scandal, Flynn abandons Ida and flees. The resulting child, a girl named May, is left in the hands of strangers when Ida is forced to move to New York to try to earn a living. Years go by. When Ida, now married to a wealthy man, disembarks from the cruise ship that returns her to Jamaica, her daughter barely knows her.
At first May couldn’t distinguish anyone who looked like the mother she had seen in the pictures. Then she made out a pretty woman in a white hat and a blue dress that clung to her figure like fish scales on a mermaid. Her white-gloved arm held on to a man who was much taller than she was. The woman saw her, raised her hand to her lips, cried out, and began waving.
The reunion proves difficult, as does the relationship between Ida and May. It plays out against the backdrop of modern Jamaican history — the end of British colonial rule, the fight for independence, the ripple effect of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, the flawed and failed sovereign governments. It’s this mix of fiction and history that gives the book much of its appeal.
Errol Flynn did, in fact, fall in love with Jamaica when his schooner, the Zaca, foundered in a hurricane just off the island’s coast. He was 40 years old and fleeing the fallout of a trial for statutory rape, just one of the numerous sexual scandals that would mark his life. Flynn purchased Navy Island, a small spit of land visited two centuries earlier by the Bounty‘s notorious skipper, Captain Bligh.
This coincidence — and a childhood fascination with pirates and seafaring adventures — gave Cezair-Thompson the seeds for her story. But unlike authors who wrote about Jamaica and left out all reference to Jamaicans, Cezair-Thompson set out to tell a more authentic tale. She peoples her world with island characters, from wealthy Jamaican landowners with a caste system of their own to impoverished laborers eager for a share of the island’s riches.
They pepper their speech with patois — good manners is “broughtupsy”; someone who wishes you ill “puts da goat-mout’ ” on you. When speaking about an unmarried pregnant girl, a woman says, “you see how she bring belly into her house.”
Jamaican music, political factions, Rastafarians, and the ganja trade find a place in the narrative. So do Flynn’s adventures, like the moment when, bored or drunk or both, he drives his Cadillac into his swimming pool during a party. Ian Fleming appears as Nigel Fletcher (whose son is named Ian, in case you don’t quite make the connection).
But setting the story against real-life events creates a strain. Cezair-Thompson struggles a bit to keep historic details as a backdrop while letting her story and characters take center stage. At times, rather than a dramatic arc in which actions beget emotional consequences, the story reverts to little more than a string of events.
From the moment she introduces Ida’s wealthy husband, Karl, Cezair-Thompson hints at his dark secret. She teases it out over the course of the book. Is he gay? Was he a Nazi? Will he, in fact, find sunken treasure? The answer, when it finally emerges, is stunning. But rather than weave it into the narrative so the truth can resonate backward and forward and shake up the plot, it’s revealed in a deathbed confession. There’s nothing to do with it then, and it feels squandered.
But as May tells us in a prologue to the book, for some raconteurs, a tale doesn’t come from them so much as come upon them. “Mouth open, story fly out.” That’s the case with Cezair-Thompson in The Pirate’s Daughter. Story flew out, and it’s a corker.