On Inheritance and Reinvention

Elizabeth Nunez, Even in Paradise (New York: Akashic, 2016); 320 pages; ISBN 978-1617754401 (paperback)

• June 2017

Elizabeth Nunez reimagines King Lear in her latest novel, Even in Paradise, recasting Shakespeare’s tragedy as a modern-day Caribbean drama themed around inheritance. The conflict in Nunez’s novel revolves around an aging father’s property and his decision to divide it among his three daughters. When Peter Ducksworth’s favorite daughter, Corinne, refuses his request for her to stop working in Jamaica’s Tivoli Gardens, Ducksworth mistakes Corinne’s assertion of her independence as an act of betrayal; he then disinherits her. But the novel is not simply about the familial conflicts that arise between an aging, wealthy patriarch, his favored daughter, and her jealous sisters. Nunez scales the ladder in depicting dramatic tension: Even in Paradise moves between the internal dynamics of a family, to a budding romance, to the wide-ranging effects of race and class that affect ordinary people in their personal interactions. The plot inherited, in two senses of the phrase, is not simply a narrative device—Nunez’s celebratory nod to Shakespeare’s King Lear gives shape to the novel’s meditation on the overlapping diasporic traditions and histories in Trinidad, Barbados, and Jamaica.

Even in Paradise begins in Trinidad and is structured around two motherless families, the Ducksworths and the Baxters. Émile Baxter, the first-person narrator and later the romantic counterpart to Corinne, has a highly respected but emotionally aloof father, John Baxter. As Émile narrates their story, he simultaneously reflects on the absence of warmth and connection between his father and himself. John Baxter, who possibly harbors feelings of resentment toward his son because of his wife’s death in childbirth, does not participate in the central narrative action but looms large in Émile’s mind. There is, then, a double quality to the novel. On the one hand, readers of Even in Paradise are swept into the parable of the Ducksworths, a tale centered on a father’s misrecognition of his favorite daughter’s demonstrations of love and loyalty. On the other, readers are submerged in the narrative perspective of Émile, who uses the parable as an occasion to interpret challenges within his own life and to reflect on his social surroundings. Like those who flip the pages of Even in Paradise, Émile is also a reader. He studies literature at the University of the West Indies, Mona, and eventually becomes an editor of a literary insert for a newspaper, the Jamaica Examiner. Émile’s narration is filled with allusions that gesture at the character’s (and its author’s) deep appreciation of literature, particularly of works that resonate with narratives of, and about, the Caribbean. In this regard, Nunez calls attention to the act of reading—that is, of interpretation. She invites her readers to engage with her allegorical recasting of King Lear while grappling with the economic realities that shape Caribbean societies, on both their historical and modern terms. More specifically, while reimagining King Lear, Nunez weaves into her novel the histories of British colonization and slavery, uniting these histories with the US presence in the Caribbean—from the expropriation of local resources, to the tourist industry, to the ways post-9/11 US policies had reverberating effects in places like Barbados, Trinidad, and Jamaica.

While Peter and Corinne Ducksworth—characters correspondent with King Lear and Cordelia, respectively—are prominently figured in the novel, there are a number of characters who are equally compelling: for instance, Albert Glazal, a character who becomes romantically involved with another of Ducksworth’s daughters, Glynis. Albert is also the best friend of Émile, who describes him as coming from “a long line of Syrian Lebanese families who were among the last immigrants to Trinidad during the colonial era” (41). This segues into a compact paragraph about Maronite Syrian Lebanese immigrants’ arrival to Trinidad and how they became part of the island’s Catholic institutions. The paragraph then swiftly links this history with the French planters who brought their slaves from Martinique and Guadeloupe to Trinidad; the paragraph continues moving back in time to the moment when Trinidad “was a mere way station for the Spanish conquistadors, their eyes set on El Dorado in the South American continent” (41). Moments such as this one, where Émile’s narration jumps the scale from the close-ups of interpersonal exchanges toward a geographically, historically sprawling perspective, are at once dizzying, breathless, and well timed. This densely compressed overview is followed by a scene in a Lebanese restaurant in which Émile and Albert see Glynis, characterized as a light-skinned Trinidadian of English ancestry, have a tense exchange with a Jamaican waiter of African descent. The history recounted earlier weighs heavily on the restaurant scene, when Glynis shoos away the waiter by “fluttering her fingers at him dismissively.” The relative silence of the waiter alongside Émile’s observations of his curled lip and “pressed pencil” on the notepad are pregnant with meaning (53). While illuminating how the overlapping histories of empire and diasporas impress upon the present, the story’s questions around inheritance, cultural and social, manifest in various elements of the novel, from interactions between characters to Nunez’s erudite and ambitious prose.

Even in Paradise arrives a timely moment, since 2016 was the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, and it has been a decade since Prospero’s Daughter, Nunez’s award-winning retelling of the bard’s The Tempest. With a special issue of Shakespeare Quarterly on race, edited by early modernists Kim F. Hall and Peter Erickson, published in the past year, Nunez’s novel appears at a critical juncture in which the legacies of race and colonialism are brought to bear in provocative, new directions in Shakespeare criticism.1 As I have these particular events in mind, I am aware that my review overshadows other rich avenues for reading Nunez’s novel, particularly through its allusions to George Lamming’s In the Castle of My Skin (1953) that appear later in the novel. But given that Nunez herself notes the anniversary of Shakespeare’s death coinciding with the publication of her novel, I am compelled to position Even in Paradise among the recent work that redefines the traditions that Shakespeare has come to signify, in both popular and academic reception. It casts light on the particular and structural effects of imperial influence, both historical and modern (the US presence is mentioned throughout the novel). In this regard, Nunez’s novel reminds me of Said’s observation that literary texts and imperial processes “are not bounded by their formal historical beginnings and endings.”2 Even in Paradise thus embeds Shakespeare’s King Lear within the Caribbean in our contemporary moment, gesturing at both the violence and beauty, barbarism and civilization, that accompany cultural memories and institutions.


Kristina Huang is a 2017–19 Scholar in Residence in the English Department at Reed College. Her dissertation work, “Toward a Black Enlightenment: The Social Life of Black Thought in the Long Eighteenth Century,” has been supported by the Institute for Research on the African Diaspora in the Americas and the Caribbean (IRADAC) and the Committee on Globalization and Social Change at the Graduate Center, CUNY.


1 See Peter Erickson and Kim F. Hall, “‘A New Scholarly Song’: Rereading Early Modern Race,” Shakespeare Quarterly 67, no. 1 (2016): 1–13.

2 Edward W. Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York: Vintage, 1994), 66. 


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