Precious Shifting Sand

Esther Figueroa, Limbo: A Novel about Jamaica (New York: Arcade, 2014); 239 pages; ISBN 978-1628723199 (hardcover)

• November 2015

Esther Figueroa’s debut novel Limbo is subtitled A Novel about Jamaica, a phrase so simple it initially rings generic, but its throw-away feel belies a substantial writing challenge. A novel truly about Jamaica must do a lot, as must a novel about Trinidad, Canada, or Bourne Island, for that matter. It cannot simply offer a taste of this one single aspect or that.

As a quick test, create your own list of must-have elements. Naturally, lists will differ depending on each person’s relationship with the nation, but odds are you have included most if not all of these: beaches, tourism, Rastas, reggae music, dancing, good food, strong rum, crime and gunmen, corruption, sex and questions of sexuality, references to Marley, and maroons. And, of course, nature.

If Limbo is to be a novel set in Jamaica, readers will expect most if not all of these, no? But for it to become a novel about Jamaica it must employ these elements in service of something of consequence. Rising to the challenge, Figueroa offers Flora Smith, PhD, “founder, CEO and Executive Director of Environment First” (37), whose focus is keeping her nonprofit afloat to fight the good fight. Figueroa throws Flora into a crime/mystery plot involving stolen sand—yes, sand, but with high stakes, big money, and danger—and a romantic subplot involving a younger man. But even as these plot elements drive a nicely paced, well-balanced, and accessible story, it is who Flora is and what makes her tick that allows for a wider lens on Jamaica and creates space for Figueroa to engage with a variety of issues in complex and perhaps unexpected ways. And what makes Flora tick is her passion about Jamaica, the environment, and the people in her life.

Early on we see Flora’s relationship with Jamaica—its land and water, fauna, and, yes, flora, even its sand: “She thinks about the millions of years and intricate biological processes that went into making this piece of the Earth, to making sand. It is irreplaceable. Sand formation is slow, and now even slower with the depletion of sand-producing fish due to overfishing, destruction of fish nurseries by shoreline development, degradation of the coral reefs by algae-producing pollution, and global-warmed bleaching” (8).

Also high on Flora’s list of treasures is the people of Jamaica, especially her friends and social circle. Most compelling of the friends is Lilac, who has known Flora the longest and cares for her best. Flora turns to Lilac in moments of doubt, crisis, grief, and celebration alike. Figueroa renders the moments between these two with a fine balance of humor and sentiment, and delicious detail (literally). Scenes with Lilac and Flora are indulgences in food and wine and inside jokes—combination therapy sessions, strategy meetings, and sleepovers— with the interplay between the two unquestionably intimate. Still, Figueroa makes it clear that Flora is a “devout heterosexual” who has been married twice and has earned the notches in her bedpost. To wit: Jerome, a sexy young dive instructor who knows things beyond his years and who provides a worthy romantic foil and link to the mystery plot. “Jerome is not a likle bwoy. He not like all the uptown spoilt boy pickney you use to . . . Jerome raise up by some serious people, and he know how to tek care of himself. Not the first time him deal wid dangerous business” (70).

In juxtaposing the long-standing intense friendship of Flora and Lilac against the complex romance of Flora and Jerome, Figueroa gestures toward a more complex range of possibilities for intimacy. Flora’s other friendships with Malcom (“one of the richest men in the Caribbean” [1]), Mason (a high-ranking Supreme Court judge), and Milton (an institution in print journalism) allow Figueroa to explore money, access, and privilege.

Malcolm draws Flora into the environmental crime at the heart of the story when he calls on her expertise to trace precious sand, the theft of which has endangered a multi-billion-dollar business project. Through Malcom we get our first view, via helicopter, of luxe tourist resorts; and we begin to see that where there is tourism, there is big money, and where there is big money, there is corruption. The unholy overlap troubles Flora, most, because of its impact on the environment.

When his court ruling on the environmental crime case endangers Mason’s safety, Flora visits him in Washington, DC. “Is more like who didn’t threaten me. . . . I had it on the highest authority that was best for me to leave post haste” (88). By way of explanation, Mason adds, “Capone control the politicians. . . . You have this mafia . . . and that cartel, and all sorts of unsavory characters who have way too much money that needs to be laundered or who need money quick. Tourism is a good ploy. . . . It’s a very frothy mix of organized crime and unorganized, or should we say disorganized, crime!” (87–88).

In Limbo, lines of demarcation between “legitimate” business, government, and criminality wash away with the tides. Figueroa takes some pains to acknowledge the complexity of the issues, troubling the conversations with questions of employment, housing, and the day-to-day existence of the man-in-the-street. Always, though, she comes down on the side of protecting the environment, the person, and the community, together.

What Figueroa does so well is imbue these relationships (and others) with honest, moving emotion, even as she employs them in service of writing about Jamaica. It is the emotion—Figueroa’s/Flora’s—that allows the call to arms for large-scale changes to protect Jamaica from (further) environmental harm, without ever sounding like a PETA manifesto. It is emotion that brings vibrancy to Limbo—a space more related to Dante verses that are quoted, at some length, than to the dance. And certainly it is the emotional relationships that allow Figueroa to engage with the oft-times simplistic view of Jamaica’s treatment of its queer daughters and sons. She casually presents Milton’s same-sex relationship—“They’ve been together ten years and still act like it’s new love” (86)—representing it no differently than she does any other relationship in the book. The impact of this presentation is heightened because this is not the only same-sex relationship mentioned. Yet this is not a rose-tinted lens on sexuality in Jamaica. Figueroa acknowledges the reality that a “rather extensive pornographic collection of upstanding Jamaican men cavorting with ghetto boys” (26) could turn up after a murder; and she archly jokes that “all [Flora] needs to say is that plastics mirror female hormones and ‘turn man into woman’ and that would be the end of plastics in Jamaica” (142). Figueroa situates queer lives alongside traditionally aligned ones. That the issue of sexuality is not the focus of the novel but is integrated into a conversation about Jamaica makes it even more impactful. In this way, Limbo represents forward movement in Caribbean literature, building on a strong foundation of LGBT literature that comes before.

Ultimately Limbo truly is a novel about Jamaica—after the fashion that Paule Marshall’s The Chosen Place, the Timeless People is a novel about Barbados (Bourne Island). In many ways, Limbo is the literary child of Marshall’s celebrated novel: it follows in the tradition of a memorable female protagonist passionate about her homeland and its people; yet it rebels, and like a “bad pickney,” embraces an entirely different viewpoint on sexuality. Limbo is analytic and prescriptive: Figueroa has studied Jamaican sands. She is never too weary to say how they have shifted, not at all afraid to point toward where she wants to see them shift next.

 

Anton Nimblett is the author of Sections of an Orange (Peepal Tree, 2009). His fiction and poetry appear in various literary journals. His reviews have appeared previously in sx salon and the Caribbean Review of Books. He is currently at work on a new collection, “Something Promised.”

 

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