The glamour of 1940s Hollywood, the turbulence of a newly independent country, the sensuality of a tropical climate, and the consequences of one’s behavior are just a few of the elements converging to create a tantalizing read in Margaret Cezair-Thompson’s second novel, The Pirate’s Daughter.
A Wellesley resident for almost twenty years and a professor of literature and creative writing at Wellesley College, Cezair-Thompson left her home and family in Jamaica, West Indies at the age of 19 to pursue her academic interests at Barnard College in New York. Today as a busy mom to a ten-year-old son and a full-time professor at Wellesley College, Cezair-Thompson somehow finds the time to work on her novels between Little League practices, teaching college classes, and attending meetings.
Her second novel, The Pirate’s Daughter, was chosen as the number one “Book Sense Pick” for October 2007. (Book Sense picks are selected by independent booksellers nationwide for special feature on a monthly basis. Only 20 titles receive this honor each month.) Her schedule is already very demanding and now with the recent success of her novel she is about to embark on a multi-city tour to promote her book.
The Pirate’s Daughter is Margaret Cezair-Thompson’s follow-up to her award-winning and widely-acclaimed previous novel, The True History of Paradise. In a recent interview, she reflected on why she enjoys writing about Jamaica and what she refers to as, “the paradise paradox.” It is fascinating to Cezair-Thompson that a place can be breathtakingly beautiful and terrifying at the same time. She explained that she wants the reader to understand Jamaica for its contradictions and that is why the setting of this story is as important as the plot and the main characters.
A majority of the story’s action revolves around the very tiny and secluded Navy Island, located in Port Antonio, Jamaica. The island is a real place and was the enclave where Errol Flynn actually lived and entertained celebrities from all over the world. This magical setting sets the stage for the novel’s intriguing plot, and the grandeur of this big estate that is breathtakingly beautiful and terrifying at the same time with a similar emotional intensity that surrounded “Tara” in Margaret Mitchell’s, “Gone with the Wind”.
The narrative begins in the late 1940s when the dashingly handsome, famous Hollywood actor Errol Flynn arrives in Jamaica on his schooner, the Zaca, after it became disabled in a storm and was unable to sail. By the time the much-needed repairs are completed and the boat is seaworthy again, Flynn has fallen in love with the island and its people.
While idly passing the time, he befriends a world-renowned British best-selling paperback book author of spy novels and a very polite German baron. The story ends in the 1970s at the height of Jamaica’s violent political upheaval, and over the course of thirty years, the lives of the novel’s main characters are turned inside out and around again.
The characters are as varied as they are resonant and extraordinarily unforgettable. Ida, one of the story’s two main characters, is the child of a Lebanese man who immigrated to Jamaica, and a Jamaican-born woman whose father is Chinese. Oni, Ida’s maternal grandmother, adds embellishment to this fascinating family’s eclectic nature; she lives in the mountains with her goats, grows her own food, and continues to practice the outlawed religious ceremonies of an Obeah. Ida pivots between all of these cultures and is an amalgamation of east meets west; she is truly an “every woman”.
The concept of “original sin” is specifically brought up early in the novel as it foreshadows the eventual outcome of Ida, the story’s heroine. There are several cleverly thought out themes, the most striking of which is to avoid the repetition of the mistakes made by one’s parents, going all the way back to when Eve ate the apple, was tossed out of paradise, and punished severely.
The timeline begins with Ida as a child and details her relationship with her mother, father, and grandmother, and ends with Ida’s relationship with her own daughter as a grown woman. The modern-day mothers are worried about the same things as their mothers were, namely their daughters’ futures.
Grandma Oni is the exception and one of the most intriguing characters in the narrative. She is an oracle with mysterious powers who gives really good free advice along with her homemade herbal remedies. The problems do not stem from her clairvoyant abilities; rather it is that her listeners do not heed her advice. Ida feels a strong need to reject her Jamaican heritage because it embarrasses her and instead she strongly identifies with expatriates; this creates a schism in her life, often pushing her in the wrong direction.
The writer unabashedly peels away the layers and skillfully reveals for the reader the real essence of class distinctions, snobbery, racism, bigotry, drug addiction, alcoholism and sexual perversion. Errol Flynn is a swashbuckling hero that everyone adores on the big screen, but it is his real life that the writer shrewdly contrasts with the man’s persona.
This fictionalized characterization portrays him as an excessive drinker, adulterer, malingerer, neglectful parent, and chronic womanizer.
As Ida and May, her only daughter, search for their identities, they also try to figure out where in the emergent Jamaican society they feel they belong while brushing up against Errol Flynn’s larger-than-life demeanor that naturally attracts sycophants. These elbow-rubbers wish to personally profit from a relationship with a wealthy movie star and be seen with him. There is a fine line between a membership into this exclusive social group and being just another local who is of little significance to this simulated hierarchy. The story demonstrates a genuine appreciation for the more fundamental characteristics that define us as people, where honesty and integrity take hold and are of a greater value than title, money, and the shallowness of fame and fortune.
Cezair-Thompson’s most magical ingredient is her ability to transcend time. The book is divided into five parts; each begins with a quote from an imaginary story, “Treasure Cove.” This cove is where Captain Bligh supposedly stashed his loot. The legends surrounding Treasure Cove grow through the main story in the same way that wild vegetation sprouts from the cracks in the tiles and bricks. Reading the prologue carefully is crucial to understanding the cryptic messages in Treasure Cove and uncovering the prize nugget at the end of the novel.
Cezair-Thompson’s ability to capture the unique dialect of the region can be attributed to her amazing ear for the way people speak, and her exceptional ability to write captivating dialogue in native dialects, adding authenticity to the narrative and its vivid characters.
The Pirate’s Daughter is easily comparable to a fabulous meal in which each course is distinctly different from the next, with many unexpected and delightful surprises. Indeed, many chapters in The Pirate’s Daughter are filled with descriptions of savory and exotic dishes. The novel would make a perfect selection for a book club because of its many interesting and relevant topics. If you choose to cuddle up with it on a cold winter night, try pairing it with a red wine that is full bodied, spicy and aromatic. Think of the book as a fascinating escape to Jamaica without the cost of airfare and a hotel.
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The article is republished from the winter 07’ issue of Wellesley Weston Magazine, Elm Bank Media.