What a Mother’s Love don’t Teach You by Sharma Taylor (RR)

Disclaimer: I know Sharma Taylor. We first met when I facilitated a workshop she participated in and met again when we both participated in a workshop together – both in Barbados, where the Jamaica-born author lives and works. We’ve stayed in touch over the years – writer-friends, if you will – as she noted in her book’s acknowledgments. My expectations were high going in to this book (an advance review copy as noted by the RR), not just because it was highly anticipated after selling at auction as part of a two book deal. I have been a fan of Sharma’s short stories (several of which are award winning), sharing several of them in the Wadadli Pen Reading Room and Gallery series, and I have interviewed her here on the blog, that interview probing at why is she is so good at what she does. The truth is, as I said in a social media post on July 7th 2022, her publication day, shortly after finishing the book, her pen is poetry. So not a disclaimer as such, Sharma isn’t the first writer I’ve written about with whom I have a connection outside of the book; I always give my honest impressions just the same. But her arrival as a published novelist does feel like a moment and as I prepare to dive in to my thoughts, it seemed appropriate to show my hand. Finally, I try but there may be spoilers. Now, this:

First, how dope is that cover. I’ve been involved in a cover war of late (at a level unlike any other time in my career), so I am especially appreciative of when a publisher gets it right. This is just right. Not just because of its pretty, rich island tones inclusive of the dark-skinned beauty, but the angle, the earthiness, the space it creates for me as a reader to project one of the novel’s main female characters -Dinah, the mother of the tale -into that image.

Second, Sharma is such a skilled writer. Her descriptions are so fresh (e.g. “The night she had left the moon was like a scythe – a hacked off toenail.”). Come on now! Her prose is so alive. You immediately feel drawn in and quickly find yourself swimming in Jamaican patois that runs freely and reads easily. It shouldn’t be rare to hear creole (our mother tongues as varied as our islands) on the page, but it is still (even among ourselves where the written down language is often the colonizer’s), making this choice political, yet unforced and natural. But this isn’t just dictation. “Is like everyday, the water have to decide if it want to come inside” – what an inventive way to sum up Caribbean water woes. Plus Sharma’s delightful use of language makes for strong and engaging character and narrative voices. “She move her arms around the room, like she swimming in the middle of the ocean doing a backstroke.” Her characterisations run deep and ring true, and this is especially true of her contextualizing of Jamaica (the rich and remote, and the seedy and bleak parts of Jamaica in which the book is located).

Third, off of that, world and plot and lack of easy answers. With regard to the part of Jamaica it visits and the space it will occupy in the literary imagination, What a Mother’s love don’t Teach You can be compared to the Booker prize winning A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James. Gang violence, garrison communities, the dynamic between don and community, politics and the police as corrupt gangs in their own right, American influence, poverty v. wealth, the innocents (even when they’re not-so-innocent) caught in the deadly crossfire, the incestuousness of it all; all the same, but different same way. The book via use of metaphor, contrast, whom it chooses to center, and just specific vivid description manages to not just show the graphic reality of life and death in a Jamaican ghetto (dead bodies in the street, police and political corruption, the church, crime bosses, class warfare, and losing and finding things and people) but juxapose it with the heart and goodness, innocence and magic also to be found there. The way of this world might seem foreign even if you are from the Caribbean but Sharma draws and layers it, then peals back the layers in a way that makes it (the world and the complicated humanity of those who inhabit it) undeniable.

Fourth, the book’s for me most itch-beneath-my-skin mystery is, of course, is she or isn’t she – see, plot point, Dinah, feels that Apollo, a privileged American boy on a Jamaica adventure with his family, is her long lost son, and the novel doesn’t really settle whether she is or isn’t by the end (as I read it) though there’s a for-all-intents-and-purposes-she-is dynamic to their relationship by the end. It’s not the book’s only hook but it’s one of mine and the answers may not satisfy (because, ah life) but they also don’t leave the reader feeling cheated.

Fifth, the heartbreak – “I just was thinking mi could give my child myself” (tough, heartbreaking choices) … “The fog move like a cloud, then it pull mi and throw mi like a hurricane and if sometime mi don’t even know miself, how mi going know nobody else?” (perhaps the best and most evocative description I’ve seen of alzheimers) … the sadness of watching hope swell knowing it is doomed; looking at this one’s life and that one’s, and resigning onesself to the inevitability of certain dark paths and their tragic outcomes.

‘Listen to yuh conscience,’ I beg her.
‘Who tell yuh mi have one?’ Regina ask. ‘Dem accept conscience at the cashier in the supermarket? What it can buy?’

This is the world of this story and it doesn’t get realer than that.

Sixth, the humour evoked in a natural, very Caribbean, where laugh dey, cry dey kind of way. “Firefighters from the fire station assigned to the Lazarus Gardens community were called to the scene but could not respond due to the absence of a fire truck. When a truck was obtained from another station, it had to be refueled. On arriving at the scene of the fire, firefighters discovered that the fire hydrant was not working, so their efforts were hampered by lack of water. Efforts to get a comment from the Jamaica Fire Brigade have proved futile.” This is a comedy more Caribbean islands than Jamaica have seen play out (my own Antigua quite recently) – it’s not funny but what you can do but laugh.

Seventh, its handling of relationships on the individual level (mother, Dinah, and maybe-son, Apollo and his sort-of-girlfriend, Regina… and on) but also in terms of class distinctions (e.g. women and their helpers, the discomfort felt that one time one of the main ghetto women finds herself on the porch of a woman up in the hills). The differences in experience and not so much values as choices makes for misunderstandings. Example: one character trying to extort money from a friend (“To think, I just ask him for a likkle tax money and him get vex and behave so”), the friend feeling hurt and betrayed, both acting and responding as their environments, one of lack and one of too much, have conditioned them to. Though it is in the end not so simple between them, because (as is the case in life) it never is in this book.

Eighth, the skilled juggling of tension and tone, plot and characters in a quite densely populated story. For example, the way it manages to add dimension to the character I think of as the story’s big bad, whom I will admit I resisted giving too effs about. I can’t say that I did give two effs about him by the end (he is still one of the evillest characters I have met ever in fiction – his backstory doesn’t redeem him, his actions in real time are cold, and his fantasies even more chilling) but there was a grotesque poetry to his characterisation (the way it moved from something very broad to something uncomfortably intimate, as claustrophobic as the character’s reach). I was surprised to find myself enthralled and invested in his character arc by its end.

Ninth, the book’s themes (and I don’t pretend to understand all it is trying to say). Its meditation on power/lack of power and violence, though, was among the more interesting elements. From the rat caught in a trap nature of the life of some of the book’s more violent characters to the meeting between the legit and illegitimate don (pick which you think is which) and seeing that power dynamic play out and as a Caribbean person myself feeling the weight of it. As for violence, some of the worst of it is doled out by the law – brutally, unnecessarily (though I guess all violence is unnecessary and what the book is showing is that there are no good guys and bad guys – and no escaping it; violence reaches even the places where people walk dogs). This is in some ways a treatise on the dehumanizing and inescapable traps that are classism, capitalism, and crime.

That list is longer than I expected when I started freewriting my reflections on What a Mother’s love don’t Teach You, and yet I didn’t love everything about this book. My frustrations with certain characters, and sometimes even with characters whose point of view I generally can appreciate are to be expected, and likely as the author intended. People are complicated and we don’t like even our favourite people all the time. I don’t have to like a character to like them if you know what I mean; so this isn’t that. But watching a character we spend a lot of time with (perhaps the novel’s anchor character) fumble around where he shouldn’t be, sometimes causing harm whether he means to or not, just irritated me. Dinah and Regina (in “prisons of [their] own” and yet not exacting violence on the world) were perhaps my favourite characters, and his relationship with both, especially the former, plus his grand gesture near the end, should make him less annoying, I suppose, as it suggests something of an arc, but it doesn’t. For me, especially as he leaves the story with the same privilege with which he came in to it (and I think I’m meant to see some change in him). Additionally, there is a romantic relationship with two main supporting characters that I just didn’t feel convinced of, and I think it’s that there was nothing in the set-up to suggest the depth of feeling they landed at. Additionally, some logistics (practical and emotional) of one character’s trajectory after a major violent incident seemed out of sync to me and takes some of the air out of the tension around his storyline. Finally, the when of the story though established up top doesn’t feel as pinned down throughout the story as it could be – so that late story references to getting up to turn off the TV or use of a rotary phone are somewhat jarring reminders of that when. I am willing to accept though that some of these might be a fault of the reading, not the writing. I read What a Mother’s love don’t Teach You in stops and starts over time (due to lack of time). That said, the writing was such that when I was reading it, it felt like it flew by, there was such an ease to it inspite of the difficult and at times quite moving subject matter.

Just listen to this:

“But in mi brain, it different, is like the dress not loose but paint on har skin and har tummy look like a football, and I thinking that is just the other day mi was a barefoot boy kicking football down the lane in Lazarus Gardens, kicking up dust wid the other barefoot boy dem and it feel like a lifetime away from this moment now in this hot, stinking cell that smell like piss and fart.”

Beautiful and ugly same time; that’s this book.

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