Uh-oh, it looks like your Internet Explorer is out of date.

For a better shopping experience, please upgrade now.

  • Alternative view 1 of Unburnable
  • Alternative view 2 of Unburnable


4.4 11
by Marie-Elena John

See All Formats & Editions

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.

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Edition description:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.68(d)

Read an Excerpt


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 fainthearted were 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, andleft 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.

Unburnable. Copyright © by Marie-Elena John. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Post to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews

Unburnable 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 11 reviews.
R_Jay More than 1 year ago
I greatly enjoyed this book. It was easy for me to finish it because most of the writing was very compelling. The story alternates back and forth between DC and the island of Dominica and between characters in the present and in the past. The main character is Lillian. I loved the parts about her family and their legacy in Dominica but the writing about Lillian's relationship with her best friend, Teddy, was a bit superficial. I understand that the author developed that relationship to show how tortured Lilian was over the events in her past, but we never really get into Lillian's head. And because of that, the ending is a bit disappointing. I was, however, thoroughly engaged when reading the parts about Lillian's ancestors and the culture of Dominica. That story line was done extremely well and flowed beautifully. Maybe the author wanted to show the disconnect between Lillian's current life and the life of her mother, step-mother, grandmother as a sign to African Americans that we need to understand our history better so as not to let it undermine us and mess with our minds. Don't know - just guessing. Either way, I enjoyed Unburnable.
Guest More than 1 year ago
As a Dominican who now lives in Antigua, this book was a captivating read for me. It is a well known fact that the more scandalous village incidents/happenings were captured in history in the form of carnival songs and thus passed from generation to generation. As this story unraveled it left me digging through stories told by my Grandmother and Mother when I was growing up, to see if any of those are reflected in this book. I usually get fully hooked on a book about half way to three quarters depending on the book, but this one grabbed my attention from much earlier. I¿m ashamed to say I struggled for two hours to put the book down so I could get to an appointment, and just couldn¿t seem to tear my eyes away long enough to shut it. The first few words of the next chapter seemed to call out that if I just read a little more, then I would have reached a good point to close the book. I was wrong on all counts. It is a page turner. I finally gave up, made myself comfortable and read to the end. The appointment was postponed. Some of the expressions on the first few pages were a bit shocking to me, but a few chapters in, and the book flows seamlessly. After reading it a second time, I am still not happy with the ending. It was a bit abrupt and left me devastated. Thankfully the rest of the story line is intriguing enough to more than make up for this slight shortcoming. This novel is a must read for the `Caribbean Curious¿ and especially Dominicans. I look forward to the next book by this talented writer.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I needed this book. Since V. S Nipol no other has told a Caribbean narrative with such flourish, such dept. Unburnable easily captures important aspect of post war, post colonial Caribbean life. From it Caribbean myths, to immigration, to racial/social disparity. Amalgamate those themes in an engrossing package is indeed a work of art. This author is immensely talented with an advent-guard style of her own. Her humour, descriptive style and syntax all senses homely, yet an advance form of that familiar style. I feel obliged to have this book become a financial success, if just for the selfish reason that she may pen another, further, if I may be more socially responsible, to evangelize an entertaining art endeavour, of social importance. Unburnable is indeed one of the first great literary works of this century.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I highly recommend this book. Simply amazing. From beginning to end you can't put this book down. The author does an amazing job of weaving the stories of each character together so that you fully understand their story. Some complain of the ending, but it could be no other way. Thanks to the author for a well written book that captivated me until the end.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Awesome read though I did find Lilly to be more selfish than strong.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I was dreading reading this book, because it was required by a course. However once i picked it up I could not put it down. It's one of those books where you do not know the entire story until the very end
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
I found this book riveting and captivating. I don't usually enjoy books of this nature but I had trouble putting it down and the ending was simply amazing! I want more from this talented author and can't wait for her next release!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was beyond, beyond. It has opened my eyes to many things associated with people not too distant yet far away. The ending left ME on a cliff.. wanting to jump for finality.. but I have never had such a thrill reading. I hope a movie is not too distant. Could be another 'Color Purple'