From Paradise to Hell

Amanda Smyth, A Kind of Eden (London: Serpent’s Tail, 2013); 288 pages; ISBN: 9781846688133 (paperback).

• October 2014

Amanda Smyth’s A Kind of Eden is a nuanced, uncomfortable novel that stares many of the issues facing twenty-first-century Trinidad and Tobago directly in the face without flinching. The ambiguous mention of Eden in the title signals to us from the outset that at some point there is going to be a fall—one that will rock the foundations of the notion that Trinidad and Tobago are Caribbean gardens of paradise.

Smyth’s first novel, Black Rock, was also set across the two islands but in a colonial context. A Kind of Eden brings us forward in time to consider certain products of the foundations put in place during that previous era. While the same corruption, inequality, and disregard for formal justice is evident, Smyth’s modern-day setting is also ridden with guns, drugs, and, in particular, a violent disregard for sexual dignity.

The story follows Martin Rawlinson, a middle-aged policeman from England who has come out of retirement to work as a kind of “consultant” for the Trinidadian police force (a program put in place in the early 2000s and since discontinued), with all of the postcolonial implications this state of affairs brings flooding into Martin’s experience of Trinidad and Tobago and, indeed, into the islands’ experience of him.

The very situation on which his role and presence in Trinidad and Tobago depend conjures uncomfortable postcolonial dysfunction at a societal level. On a personal level, Martin seems, at the beginning of the novel, at least, to be blissfully unaware of these dynamics. However, as Smyth delves further into the relationships Martin has built, for example, with his lover Safiya and with his colleagues, these dynamics gradually become visible in multiple, subtle ways. Safiya herself seems to represent the intensely mixed essence—beautiful yet bruised, strong yet simultaneously weak—of Trinidad and Tobago. The nature and progression of Safiya’s relationship with Martin seems reflective both of this and of these islands’ own relationship with its former European bedmate, Britain.

However, while issues arising from this dynamic manifest in gradual, subtle terms, the story takes a rather different turn when Martin’s wife, Miriam, and their teenage daughter Georgia visit from England. Through Martin’s eyes we see that his marriage to Miriam is in a fragile state and is characterized in part by the still-healing wound of losing their youngest daughter, Beth, several years previously. This shared experience of loss and suffering seems to both hold them together and threaten to drive them apart.

While Martin is on holiday with Miriam and Georgia in Tobago, a process of sudden, rapid disillusionment and “re-illusionment” occurs for him following a deeply traumatic event. This begins with an innocuous and, if anything, friendly incident in which Martin and his family help a young local man who has injured his foot in a fishing accident and who, with two friends, is seemingly stranded on the small bit of beach by the Rawlinson’s secluded holiday villa. The initial exchange seems characterized by kind intentions, although the young men in question are notable in their opacity, in their lack of reaction or warmth in spite of the family’s act of “good will” in inviting them into their villa to see to the young man’s injury.

Later that evening, the young men return. Martin and Miriam are attacked and Georgia is raped.

From this point on, Tobago, according to the novel’s synopsis, turns from “a kind of Eden [into] a sort of hell.” No longer a gentle, tropical escape from this family’s seemingly difficult reality, the twin islands at this point become the setting for a reality far grimmer than any of them could have ever imagined, and with this realization, the hairline cracks in Martin’s idealized version of Trinidad and Tobago form ever deepening fissures.

Where Smyth’s “outsider” protagonist was once intoxicated, fascinated, and excited, he becomes traumatized, embittered, and, in his own way, drawn into the cycle of violence that has come to characterize modern-day Trinbagonian society. The reader watches Martin’s life unravel and cannot help but share in his relief when he finally leaves the islands behind, on his own lawless and murky terms. By the time he goes, Trinidad and Tobago have irrevocably changed this once-mild-mannered Englishman. The process of this change and its results are adeptly evoked by Smyth. The reader is left with a sense that aspects of the violent and unpredictable side of Trinidad and Tobago have crept under Martin’s skin and left their mark, reflected in the nature of how he deals with the attack, its fallout—“feeling his power; his desire to bring terror” (285)—and his eventual departure.

Smyth offers a frank treatment of many of the issues facing modern-day Trinidad and Tobago, in terms of both the local and the expatriate population. Her sparse yet evocative prose cut straight to the heart of what such issues can truly mean at the human level. Her consistent use of the present tense throughout is striking; the reader moves with the events and relationships as they evolve in an almost cinematic fashion—they are made inescapable, and this renders the book all the more readable, drawing us into the characters’ unfolding reality.

In this novel Smyth captures the experience of the outsider in Trinidad and Tobago—both the initial intoxication or seduction and the inevitable disillusionment once he or she has become too close. The characters with whom Martin Rawlinson comes into contact as the story unfolds capture the almost off-hand, superficial acceptance of the state of Trinidadian society by its middle and working classes, which belies a deeper, bitter sense of disillusionment with their government, their own people, and what the islands could be but simply are not at this point.

 

Sophie Harris is a modern languages teacher in Oxford, England. She earned an MA in Caribbean and Latin American studies from the University of London and has completed a dissertation titled “Re-Imagining the Independence Experience in Trinidad and Tobago: The Black Power Movement in the Work of Earl Lovelace.”

 

 

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