“Papa had to die to set us free…”

Patricia Powell, The Fullness of Everything (Leeds, UK: Peepal Tree Press, 2009), 240 pages,  ISBN 10-1845231139 (paper).

• December 2010

In Patricia Powell’s latest novel, The Fullness of Everything, we learn that “[e]verything has its price, even love” (201). The novel explores the difficulty of reconciling anger and love as the central protagonist, Winston, comes to terms with the anger that he feels toward his family, his lover and, more importantly, himself.

Powell’s fourth novel opens with a nightmare: Winston dreams of his father’s death, a death precipitated by a sealed telegram from Kingston. Winston, a history professor at an unnamed North American university who “left like quashee,” is plagued by images of his “dead and bloated” father. After consulting with his best friend, Silas, Winston returns home after a twenty-five year absence to face his mother, his brother Septimus, and his dying father only to find one of his father’s many “outside children” living with his mother. At first Winston sees Rosa as a signifier of his mother’s inability to protect herself or the interests of her own children from his father’s violence. But with the death of the father, everything changes.

The death transforms the entire family. Winston’s mother had been a “brown-skinned, university educated” woman, whose educational success could not alleviate social pressures to perform the proper role of wife and mother. As a Caribbean woman, she is supposed to be maternal, heterosexual, and monogamous, and allow her husband sexual freedom and mobility. With the patriarch’s illness, incapacitation and death, the mother blossoms. Winston speculates, “she might even be in love with [his father] all over again” (52). The illness that “diminished” and finished the “great man” liberates the mother. She is appropriately dutiful, maternal, and long suffering, but when he departs, she moves on. Consistent with Powell’s oeuvre, this novel challenges limited images of Caribbean sexuality. Winston’s father is not reduced to an embodiment of pure evil or a “failure” due to an inability or refusal to be monogamous or retain a heteronormative family structure, nor is his mother represented as a sadomasochistic saint who enables her own exploitation. The Fullness of Everything does not offer such simplistic renderings of the family romance.

In the vein of classical narrative, Winston has a fraught relationship to his father. He is the legitimate first-born son, one would think a position of favor, but the patriarch hates this prodigal son. The sole indicator we have for the father’s animosity is Septimus’ description of young Winston’s “sissy walk” (123). The hint of effeminacy, in a nation where “being a man is everything,” makes him a target for abuse. As an adult, Winston is an academic struggling with his own history while involved romantically with Marie Jose, a white breast cancer survivor, who does not want to have children. When Winston announces his intent to keep Rosa, his relationship to Marie Jose is further “complicated”; but more significantly his father erupts one last time, lunges toward him, and dies.

Further complicating this novel’s exploration of “family” in the (neo)colonial context is the representation of Septimus, the younger, favored brother. Septimus is a mortician. He takes pleasure in giving the living back their dead, if only for a moment, but struggles with the emotional “deaths” in his family. Septimus mourns the loss of his twin sister and a failed relationship with his first wife and son. He has incredible anxiety about his second wife Fiona’s relationship with her former lover, Robbie Chen, a Chinese Jamaican plantation owner with whom she had two children. Through Septimus’ visions, we see the emotional cost of preserving colonial gender roles. After arriving in America for a visit to Winston and Rosa, Septimus imagines the dissolution of Fiona’s romantic relationship to Chen, who chose to marry a proper Chinese woman chosen by his parents instead of Fiona. Through a disruption of temporal and spatial order, the novel’s subplot explores the complex relationships between black, brown and Chinese Jamaicans. As members of the larger neocolonial household, these characters and their interaction represent a reconciliation of sorts with the history they were born into and participate in. Fiona confronts Chen, who is unable to “choose” to be a different kind of man and it is his incapacitation that allows Fiona to choose her husband. This subplot is one of the threads Powell uses to patch together a text that navigates through a history rife with complex familial relationships created by colonialism.

Rosa, the “outside child,” is a figure that Powell uses to further question filial bonds. She is special; she has “the gift.” She can commune with the dead and living in ways unaccounted for by models of rationality. Through Rosa, Winston and Septimus reattach the connective tissue between themselves and others. Rosa is the lost sister and child Winston has always wanted. She enables Septimus to articulate the pain of losing his father and rework the relationship that he has with his own “pretty” son. Rosa also embodies interiority, uncompromising rage, intellectual curiosity, and love. Powell’s outside child facilitates the family’s healing and reorganizing itself, thus metaphorizing the struggles of diasporic subjects to redefine themselves.

In death, the father’s spirit answers for his “wrongs” while his sons struggle with the violent history they inherit; they know “blows” and “hard words” not love. Both sons have to transform. Through Rosa they are able to rethink the sins of the father by seeing Rosa’s beauty as proof of the “good things” in their father. At the same time no one is left unscathed. None of the characters have a happy ending, and all outside children are not spiritual sepulchers. The novel focuses on the particular effects produced by colonialism on masculinity, femininity and the family in Jamaica and “elsewhere” without demonizing any of its subjects. In Powell’s latest offering we have a novel of complexity, of necessary breaks with fantasies of wholeness, new beginnings, and neat uncomplicated endings. The Fullness of Everything adds to Powell’s ongoing exploration of the effects of historical processes of colonialism on the contemporary diasporic subject, and out of that exploration she finds hope.

 

Tzarina T. Prater is an Assistant Professor of English at the City University of New York – LaGuardia Community College, has published articles on literature and film spectatorship, and is currently working on her book project, Cinematic Vernacular in Black Fiction.

 

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