Blogger on Books V – In Time of Need by Shakirah Bourne

Time

I’ve finally finished Shakirah Bourne’s In Time of Need, and shame on me for taking so long because it’s a really quick read. It’s genuinely funny and then clocks you in the middle of the laughter with some hard truths – rooted in our Caribbeanness but also in our humanity. Don’t take my reference to our humanity to mean that it’s watered down in service to universality – it is a distinctly, insistently Bajan (Barbadian) book in location, theme, sensibility, but especially in voice, so much of the narration rolling off the tongue in that uniquely Bim vernacular.

That said, In Time of Need, as a collection is uneven overall, some of the stories (there are 15 plus a novel excerpt) landing better than others. First, the ones that I thought landed solidly.

‘Getting Marry’ is a strong opener that does that thing Bourne does so well in several stories of showing grown folks business from a child’s point of view, committing to that, and the by turns ridiculous and heartbreaking places it leads. The protagonist is a boy who is baffled by the news that his parents are going to get married. The comedy is built in to the misunderstanding. But the story also goes for the emotional jugular as the cracks in the parent’s relationship, as seen from the child’s perspective, underscore that his parents really shouldn’t be getting married. “Daddy does lash mommy cross she head with he belt when she give trouble, and the days when Mummy hit he back and them get blood all over the house, them would cry and kiss and hug after.”  And, of course, under all that, in spite of the violence and deception in the home, is the child’s fear that the world that he knows is changing. ‘Getting Marry’ like many other stories in the collection, is a reprint of a story previously published (this one in Arts Etc).

‘Saran’s Dollhouse’ settles itself comfortably in the perspective of a nine year old girl whose parents are acrimoniously no longer together – everything rings true, from her childish fantasies of the perfect family to the real world wars of her parents to her attempts to claim what she wants to the ways she observes the world, the park comes to mind (with a minor quibble re the description of her father in the park as “a big tall Black man” because in a world of Black people, it seems odd that “Black” would stand out as a way to pick him out of the imagined crowd; and it also doesn’t sound like how a child thinks of her father). Continuing the theme of lost innocence that runs through the book, it is a touchingly sad story about a child having to re-set her expectations about her relationships with the adults in her life.

I really loved ‘Crossing Over’ – I’ve read it before, in St. Somewhere, and was happy to see it here. It’s easily one of my favourites in this collection. The opening “When I was younger, I used to love going to funerals because I could sneak away from my crying mother and run outside in the graveyard with my friends, where the real fun began”, had a cracky, darkly humorous distinctly Caribbean, uncensored childlike askew view of the world that tickled me and yet the story navigates the tonal shift to darker themes with ease.

‘We Always Smile for Photos’ (love that title) was previously published in Womanspeak and She Sex, and, when I saw that it was in this collection, I looked forward to reading it again. It deals with domestic violence in a totally immersive way by framing the story purely as a dialogue between two women (one involved in an abusive relationship, and the other advising her on how to weather the storm, and revealing to the reader, if not herself, that she, too, is trapped in an unhealthy relationship). There is no explaining, beyond what’s revealed through the dialogue, and yet we’re clear right away on what’s happening – the various conversations bringing it into sharper focus.

‘The Five-Day Death of Mr. Mayers’ is a tale that balances the zany, Caribbean-specific humour and the zany, only-in-the-Caribbean harsh realities (Bourne might say only-in-Barbados but, as an Antiguan, I can relate to the sluggishness and disorganization surrounding public health and transportation services – though to be honest, the Barbados transportation system seems infinitely better organized than my own – and with the idiosyncracies surrounding education, communities, and the tourism culture). It makes you laugh while cutting to the heart, and is a high point in the book. From title to last line (“It was not like anyone would miss him”), it is perhaps more illustrative than any story here of the sweet spot of Bourne’s writing – the way she taps in to the natural humour in situations, heightens them to a level of ridiculousness that still has the ring of truth, and the way this situational comedy slides in to pathos so that you’re feeling an ache even as you laugh at the silliness. And beyond the way the story makes you feel, there are the deeper insights to the way people don’t want you until you’re gone and they can capitalize on it in some kind of way, or the loneliness of life, how we’re all isolated a kind of how, though we interact with several people in any given day.

‘I Didn’t Know’ was a restrained story of motherhood and sisterhood and losing someone you lost a long time ago. I liked it. Similarly quiet and affecting was ‘A Tale for Miss Cinty’, also about loss, but the realization of that loss being delayed as the child who views the world selfishly, as children do, finally becomes the adult who feels the weight of things. Beautifully done.

I also feel primed for the novel teased in the last spot in the collection. A child’s point of view – an angle from which Bourne does some of her best work, vivid and dramatic storytelling, and lines like this, “A mosquito fly pass me and I run and slap at it, and then flick the dead body in he direction so he would always remember that I crazy” make Getting Back at Jack Taylor a novel I look forward to reading.

I’m putting ‘If Dogs Could Talk’ on a mid-line between what works and what might not.  On the one hand, it’s the writer doing what she does, finding the off-side way into a story. On the other hand, the approach initially feels gimmicky (and I’m not entirely convinced it isn’t): no narrative framing, no dialogue in a dialogue driven narrative, just one side of a three sided dialogue, with flashbacks, it’s a bit hard to track initially – who’re the characters? What’s the plot? What’s happening? – but if you stick with it, and I almost didn’t, and the more the character is allowed to monologue (as opposed to the dialogue where you’re supposed to fill in the blanks of the other sides of the conversation), it becomes quite a compelling window to what it’s like to be a child on the receiving end of unwanted advances from an adult.

Also on that line is ‘Four Angry Men’ which has potential to be adapted in to a one act play (or expanded in to a full play). It’ s an act we’ve seen in rum shops across the Caribbean where everyone has an opinion, the talk is dominated by politics and women, and lucidity has an inverse relationship to how many shots you’ve had. On a deeper level it’s a appropriately archaic given the age of the characters window to Caribbean society.

Among the ones that didn’t land as solidly, for me, was ‘White Sand’ which was… okay. Thematically, it deals with poverty, lack of choices, dreaming, naiveté, and human trafficking; plot wise it’s predictable. But where Bourne shines here, as with other short stories, is with point of view and voice – and the young woman in this story’s voice is so solid and strong, and her circumstances so precarious and dangerous, that the reader wants to both tug her back from danger and wrap her up in safety…but we fear that, for her, it is already too late.

I read ‘The Last Crustacean’ before, actually it was one of the first Bourne stories I read, in (I think) The Caribbean Writer, and I really liked it (singled it out as one of my favourites, in fact, and didn’t mind reading it here again) but I think I might have edited it out of this collection. As a treatise on the conflict between the natural environment and developmental ambitions on small islands from the perspective of a crab, its unconventional point of view, a marker of Bourne’s work, was one of the things that appealed to me. But it didn’t really fit naturally in this collection – tonally and in terms of the relational concerns that dominate the rest of the book.

‘Sheep Don’t Stand Still’ was, also, a weak spot for me and it might be a matter of personal taste, but I also think the writer plays up the slapstick comedy aspects of this farce of a funeral to the detriment of character development and real emotional investment. The only time I felt anything real as a reader was my recoil when somebody spit in the corpse’s face, and as for the reveal at the end, it wasn’t much of a surprise. The story also didn’t make me laugh but comedy is funny and personal that way – what tickles one person won’t even get a reaction out of another.

‘Rock-a-bye’, the story of a young police officer grappling with the choices or lack thereof in his job, feels a bit too on the nose; but there is a really powerful moment near the end as the young officer shares a heartbreaking moment with the mother of his young charge.

‘A Boy Meets Girl Story’ is a bit of an outlier in this connection – the main character feels foreign to this world (the various Barbadoses explored in the book to that point) and the girl skipping on the beach feels like a Hollywood scene (like something out of a J-Lo rom-com, which would make the maid, who dies without impacting much of anything in this story in which time zips by Hollywood fast, the lovers’ foil). It wasn’t my favourite story in this collection but it was not without its charm.

‘A Single Daisy’ could have been a great story (about love and regret, deception and letting go) – but the plot gets a bit lost in the telling (at least for me). We’re told the tale from the mistress’ point of view but the timeline of the actual relationships is harder to pin down, perhaps because of that. As she leaves the hospital, I have a sense that she is breaking with a bad addiction (addiction is a sub-theme), in this case love, but beyond that neither she nor the other characters are ever sufficiently defined in my view, nor the space they move around in. Which means that I’m honestly not sure I’m interpreting any of this close-to-right. There are some beautifully sad moments though – her staring at the heart chart in order to compose herself, for one.

In the review of Bourne’s fourth film A Caribbean Dream in the July/August issue of Caribbean Beat, Jonathan Ali writes that in the world of film “Shakirah Bourne established herself as a purveyor of cheap-and-cheerful cinematic entertainment.” I think a reading of her work as “cheap-and-cheerful” misreads the layers to her storytelling – at least on the page (as, granted, I haven’t seen her films yet). Though she can sometimes lean self-indulgently in to the humour and lightness, I find there’s often something more there. It’s not just empty calories. Words like “colourfully mounted” and “breezily” are used to describe her approach to the play-cum-film under review, an adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s allegorical comedies. It would be easy to read her fiction with the same eye (or to limit it to those descriptions). But it would be wrong.

The main page of my Blogger on Books lV series can be found here. The main page of Blogger on Books V can be found here. To check out my books and see what reviewers and readers have been saying about them, go here and here.