What Start Bad A Mornin’ by Carol Mitchell (RR) – Disclaimer: in addition to this review being based on an advance copy I was asked to blurb, Mitchell is the owner of Caribbean Reads Publishing, publisher of two of my books – Musical Youth and Lost! A Caribbean Sea Adventure. She has published books by herself and other authors, primarily children and teen/YA books. This is her first adult novel; it is published by Central Avenue Publishing. It has a September 2023 publication date but as of March 2023 is available for pre-order.
“What start bad ah marnin’…” is the first half of a Caribbean saying, the ending of which you can probably guess – “cyaan cum good ah evening/cyaan come back good (ah evening)/can’t end good”. How a thing starts is an indicator of how it will end – work can be done in between to fix it or to change course but without that work (and even then…), it will still be as broken in the evening (the end) as it was in the morning (the beginning). Let that prime your reading of this book.
Carol Mitchell’s What Start Bad A Mornin’ is the story of Amaya, a Caribbean migrant in America, who has blocked her past from herself but has to confront it if she is to have any chance of bettering her evening.
Between the alzheimer’s suffered by the aunt who raised and lives with her in the US, her son, who is on the autism spectrum, her husband, who is on the brink of a major business deal, and her various friendships, Amaya is busy – perhaps too busy.
With the novel’s inciting incident, her past crashes in to her present. She is lost and spinning, and the reader with her as we accompany her on a journey to clear the fog and solve the mystery of her very existence. It is a compelling, meditative, well-paced journey.
Among the book’s best features is the deeply close perspective in to main character’s sometimes dreamlike sense of reality: “When I opened my eyes, I realized that I was tiny, lying along the length of an arm, my head in a palm, my body along a forearm, and my legs dangling on either side of an elbow. …I struggled to stay in the moment, to stay in the baby’s head because I was in there, but I was also everywhere, looking down on myself through the woman’s eyes, looking down from a larger vantage point, the trees, the clouds, the sun, aware of everything at once.”
Another striking feature is the garden imagery which is sustained and effective throughout – the garden as coping mechanism, as source of healing, and as metaphor (“I pulled at a leaf and the entire plant emerged from the water-logged soil, the roots swinging the desperate swing of someone hanging on to life by a slippery edge”). The garden is also a reality in which the characters (both Amaya and her aunt) can ground themselves, especially when the world makes no sense. It returns, too, as a site of conflict in which garden tools come in to play. The water imagery also has a certain poignancy – “for months, I had felt as if I were carrying a small fishbowl in my belly…any sudden movements would send the water sloshing over the sides” (Amaya, in reference to her pregnancy). The descriptions generally are a high point; effectively evoking the character’s internal and external worlds.
Familial discord is at the heart of the book’s conflicts – whether the toxicity between young, pregnant Amaya and her classist mother in law, older Amaya and the husband who is within reach but held at arms-length, the communication hurdles she must navigate with both her aunt and her son, or the family history she is now challenged to unpack.
The character dynamics are complex and interesting; the entanglements sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes heartwarming, sometimes frustrating, sometimes cosy, etc., all the beats of genuine human interaction.
Amaya is a complex rubix cube, frustratingly turning this way and that, oftentimes away from the direction that could solve the puzzle; and because we care for her, this creates tension in the reader.
Let’s talk about this book’s tension because, as a mystery within a drama, it is sometimes on 100. When dialogue like “Hi, Amaya” can give you chills, depending on who’s saying it and the circumstances, it’s a reminder that you are with the character, keenly aware of the danger she feels, and as disoriented.
Bob Marley who cameos briefly in the book, set mostly in the US but partly in two Caribbean islands including Jamaica, once sang, “you runnin’ and you runnin’ and you runnin’ away, but you can’t run away from yourself”, and this is what Amaya has to learn.
What Start Bad A Marnin is a meditation on the quality of memory, how it can be “like entering a room and finding it pitch dark”.
There are things in the book that challenge credulity and, as a reader, I am sometimes frustrated by what I don’t know; as well, in the third act, the pace quickens and the end feels like it rushes in too quickly.
But the book’s well-established stakes had me so hooked that I was a little distressed when I realized it was ending; I wanted more. But the mystery had cracked and we, the reader, would have to fill in the blanks on the rest. The path had been laid.
I recommend Carol’s book for its complex character and her high stakes journey.
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