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by Marie-Elena John

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Haunted by scandal and secrets, Lillian Baptiste fled Dominica when she was fourteen after discovering she was the daughter of Iris, the half-crazy woman whose life was told of in chanté mas songs sung during Carnival—songs about a village on a mountaintop littered with secrets, masquerades that supposedly fly and wreak havoc, and a man who


Haunted by scandal and secrets, Lillian Baptiste fled Dominica when she was fourteen after discovering she was the daughter of Iris, the half-crazy woman whose life was told of in chanté mas songs sung during Carnival—songs about a village on a mountaintop littered with secrets, masquerades that supposedly fly and wreak havoc, and a man who suddenly and mysteriously dropped dead.

After twenty years away, Lillian returns to her native island to face the demons of her past—and with the help of Teddy, a man who has loved her for many years, she may yet find a way to heal.

Set in both contemporary Washington, D.C., and post-World War II Dominica, Unburnable weaves together West Indian history, African culture, and American sensibilities. Richly textured and lushly rendered, Unburnable showcases a welcome and assured new voice.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
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.
Library Journal
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.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.68(d)

Read an Excerpt


A Novel
By Marie-Elena John

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2006 Marie-Elena John
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0060837578

Chapter One

Up There, Noah

Lillian's mother, Iris, was known throughout the island for a number of distinct characteristics: the women would say that chief among them were her uncommon beauty, the fact that her skin was reputed to actually glow in the dark, and the nasty cussing she directed at anyone who crossed her path when she was drunk beyond a certain point. Others insisted that Iris was known best as the daughter of Matilda, who had been tried, convicted, and, on one typically rainy Dominica day in 1950, publicly hanged. Men, though, would laugh at that and say it was the quality of the sex Iris offered that was the thing, for her mother had taught her a number of tactics for keeping her vagina in pristine condition, despite the damage that had been done to it many years before by a broken Coca-Cola bottle. The elasticity was not only due to the tightening exercises she performed for twenty minutes daily, drunk or sober; she also knew about the enhancing properties of alum and such substances, and was never without a supply of these aids.

But beyond all this, the men -- men of all classes, town men and country men -- were astounded by the passion of their encounters with Iris. Several of the faintheartedwere too cowardly to face it a second time, but for the most part this was what kept her steady stream of visitors coming. None understood that the intensity that left them shaken was actually the aggression of an otherwise powerless, disappointed, and very angry woman, who was, in fact, molesting them with her body as she threw them onto their backs and attacked them brutally. But they were oblivious to this dynamic, and left with their chests out, proud of their potency, which they felt had aroused her to such an extreme response.

Without fail these men brought with them a bottle in a brown paper bag, and took care to leave behind "a little something to help out." While the high-class town people from Roseau referred to her as "the half-Carib salop," it is to the credit of the country people, islandwide, that none of them, woman or man, considered her to be a prostitute. The villagers, as villagers often do, exhibited a sophistication beyond their time and place regarding the options left for a woman who had suffered Iris's fate, and they understood the practicality of what is today called, in certain circles, the sex industry. The women, in particular, beyond acknowledging her historical place as the daughter of the infamous Matilda, had a definite appreciation for Iris: she kept their men from bothering them when they were too occupied with raising their children to be concerned with the effort of sex; and especially in the areas around her house, she kept their young boys from experimenting on their young girls, thereby keeping down underage pregnancy.

Iris died in 1971 in a Roseau jail, where she was being kept overnight for the crimes of disorderly conduct and disturbing the peace. She had lived in or just outside of Dominica's single town for most of her life, from the time she was fourteen years old until her early death at the age of forty, but she was born in a very different environment, at the top of one of the island's highest mountains, on a plateau. The isolated place where Iris's navel string was buried didn't appear on a map until 1950, after it had already ceased to exist, when it was recorded as "Noah." Before that, it was known only as "Up There" -- with the rest of the phrase, "where Matilda lives," left unspoken, understood.

Up There was where she was born to Matilda and Simon the Carib, a short, red-skinned, flat-faced man with slitted eyes and straight, heavy black hair, a kind of person the inhabitants of the place that came to be called Noah had never seen before. He had walked out of the surf onto the black-sanded beach dragging his canoe along the rocks, asking around the coastal villages if anyone knew where to find a woman named Matilda.

The technology to build roads by blasting canyons through mountains had not yet reached Dominica. The rains that constantly washed away the attempts at roads insulated them from the rest of an island so inaccessible and impenetrable that Columbus had bypassed it, describing it to Isabella and Ferdinand back in Spain, it is said, by throwing a crumpled sheet of paper at their feet. The people who lived Up There, every last one of unadulterated African descent, knew that not even sixteen forested and mountainous miles opposite their enclave, over on the Atlantic side of the island, lived a small group of people left over from the time before the white people and before the Black people. But while most other Dominicans were accustomed to seeing the red people with the dead-straight hair, few of those who lived Up There had ever set eyes on a Carib until the middle of the 1920s, when one appeared in the person of Simon.

The underlying red hue from her father's Carib blood made Iris glow. Matilda's West African features melded with those of the indigenous Caribbean people to give her a mouth wider than they thought possible; slits for eyes that slanted upward at almost half of a right angle, and cheekbones that slashed high across her face. The nose, however, was the thing, a replica of the one on Matilda's face: a dominating piece of work set broad across her narrow face, the bridge dipping down and staying low to the plane of her face, the nostrils rising high, finely carved and perfectly curved. Nowhere had the secluded people seen such a captivating combination of features. Her singular, iridescent looks convinced them that there had been some kind of otherworldly intervention in her conception, and they took this to be confirmation of Matilda's powers.


Excerpted from Unburnable by Marie-Elena John Copyright © 2006 by Marie-Elena John. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

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.

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