Brenda Flanagan, Allah in the Islands (Leeds, UK: Peepal Tree, 2009); 217 pages; ISBN 978-1845231064 (paper).
Allah in the Islands, the second novel by Trinidadian author Brenda Flanagan, continues the story of Rosehill, a community on Santabella Island (seemingly modeled on Trinidad). The lyric prose and skillful characterizations acclaimed in Flanagan’s first novel, You Alone Are Dancing, are harmoniously woven throughout a socially multifarious and politicized context that serves as both the foreground and the backdrop of both stories. Set after the departure of Sonny Allen, the co-protagonist of the first novel, Allah in the Islands assumes the reader’s familiarity with the lush tropical surroundings described in the outset of You Alone Are Dancing. Flanagan begins her second novel by immersing the reader in the first-person narrative reflections of Abdul, right-hand man for Haji, the political personality on whom one of the central storylines of the narrative hinges. Interspersing Abdul’s first-person narratives with chapters narrated by an omniscient voice, Flanagan carries the reader toward the novelistic climax through the accretion of Abdul’s ever-more-revealing chapter inclusions and through the rhythms of the text, established via an engaging demotic, variable chapter lengths, and the novel’s structure. Dividing the novel into three parts, Flanagan crafts each section—“Dry Season,” “Rainy Season,” and “Fire and Water”—to reflect its titular characteristics.
Part One: “Dry Season”
Similar to the leatherback turtles that build their nests and lay their eggs during the Trinidadian dry season, part one presents nascent and intermingled storylines to be developed and eventually resolved (hatched). “Dry Season” begins where You Alone Are Dancing concludes, with the unexpectedly positive resolution of Beatrice Salandy’s trial. Beatrice, the main protagonist of the first novel, overtly accused of “stealing thousands of dollars from the government” (15) and covertly suspected of the murder of a prominent Chinese doctor, was involved in a two-year ordeal publicized throughout the island. Flanagan allows Beatrice’s past heartaches—raped by the doctor whom she assaulted in revenge, haunted by the death of her young son, and brokenhearted by what she believes is treachery by her lover, Sonny—to enter her present in fleeting touches, similar to the posthumous caresses and advice of her Tante Vivian, which are interspersed throughout the novel.
Although Tante Vivian, Beatrice’s primary guide and mentor in the first novel, is deceased, and Sonny moves abroad, other conflicting voices seek to influence Beatrice’s life decisions both within Rosehill and without. Woven into the multilayered narrative of the first section are the voices of Reme, Beatrice’s mother, and Miss Ann, each believing that she knows what is best for Beatrice. Reme seeks to covertly direct and manipulate circumstances to ensure that Beatrice secures her visa and leaves for America. With little thought to her own benefit, Reme desires for Beatrice to accomplish all that she is capable of. Miss Ann, on the other hand, believes that what is best for Beatrice is her continual investment in the Rosehill community. Reflecting the collective possessiveness the people of Rosehill feel for Beatrice because of their complicity in covering her crimes, Miss Ann closely observes Beatrice’s activities and challenges those who seek to aid Beatrice in departing the area. Miss Ann convinces herself that she is not meddling in Beatrice’s affairs but helping the people of the town.
External to Rosehill, Haji’s voice is also intertwined both within the larger society and in Beatrice’s life as Beatrice contemplates his public statements with growing interest. Presenting himself as a type of savior for the common people, Haji seems to provide the hope, the security, and the resources the government withholds from or overlooks for those in need. Yet his Muslim faith causes some in Santabella to doubt his sincerity and authenticity. Indian Muslims are accepted without question but a black Muslim seems to be a contradiction in terms. Allah? In the islands? Although Miss Ann is one of the few who voices her censure, the conclusion of the novel reveals that her perception of Haji is shared by many others. While many accept Haji’s offerings of food and assistance, and concur with his reproach of the government, they tacitly misunderstand or distrust his larger purpose. Beatrice, passionate about aiding her people, is appreciative of Haji’s generosity to the people but unsure of his political stance. Her initial encounter with him, however, introduces a romantic element to their future interactions, as they are evidently drawn to each other. Furthermore, Abdul’s adoring depiction of Haji indicates that his seemingly magnetic presence impacts men and women alike.
Part Two: “Rainy Season”
“Rainy Season” opens with a lyrically descriptive presentation of the bothersome and enchanting aspects of the season: the invasion of insects in the home, on the person, and on the crops; the ripening of fruit and the increase in the nectar of the flowers. “Mangoes ripened, green figs turned yellow . . . and hummingbirds darted from one hibiscus to another, sucking nectar with their long beaks” (66). Similar to the vegetation, Flanagan uses this central section of the novel to ripen each of the various imbricated narratives until they seem ready for harvesting. Flanagan also increases the pace of the narrative through the intensification of the various storylines, the often brief chapters, and the increased collective interactions among the key characters.
Haji figures prominently in this second section, as his actions become more public and widespread. Appearing on the news and in the newspapers, he begins to hold rallies outside the mosque in various key communities, in an effort to raise the support of the people. Although the school that he begins to build in Rosehill shows that he cares for the people, his generosity seems to be dually motivated: he seeks to aid them and hopes that they will support him when the time comes. Haji also has plans for Beatrice and announces during the rally in Rosehill that he would like her to serve as the headmistress of the school when it’s completed. He therefore unknowingly joins Miss Ann in an effort to encourage Beatrice to remain in Rosehill.
Concurrently, Beatrice remains the central character, as those seeking to determine the course of her life intensify and increase their efforts. Miss Ann, believing that Beatrice may join the Muslims after Haji’s public announcement, contacts Reme for assistance in her cause. Reme rejects Miss Ann’s overtures, but is motivated to visit Beatrice and deliver the items she has to aid Beatrice in securing her visa, and when Beatrice informs her mother that she is already prepared to depart for America, with both visa and passport in hand, Reme’s tears of relief comingle with the rains of the season.
Beatrice’s lovelife is also developed in ”Rainy Season”—after attending a service in the mosque, Haji, through deliberate arousal and sudden cessation, presses his efforts to encourage Beatrice to stay in Santabella; Sonny sends Reme a letter of sponsorship for Beatrice, revealing his continuing affection for her; and Abdul is infatuated with Beatrice upon their first encounter.
Part Three: “Fire and Water”
The effectiveness of Flanagan’s structural use of narrative voice is most clearly depicted in the final section, “Fire and Water.” For the first time, each focal character’s voice is heard through first-person rather than omniscient narration. Each chapter is named for the character who speaks; Beatrice, Sonny, Miss Ann, and Abdul individually, and collectively, close the text. Literal and figurative flames leap throughout the section, though all but one is eventually doused with the water of unfulfilled promises, departure, and violent governmental intervention.
Flanagan creates narrative fire in this final section through the continued use of abbreviated chapters (some with one or two pages only), delayed resolution, and full narrative and character disclosure. She uses her prose to effectively and powerfully draw the reader gradually deeper into the narrative plot and the character’s thoughts and emotions while simultaneously revealing the perspective framework of the text through Abdul and its titular significance through Miss Ann. The novel focuses not just on Beatrice’s life but also on the significance of the communal actions and voices interspersed throughout. Infused with the patois, cultural mores, and idioms of Trinidad, Allah in the Islands is a bold commentary on the entrenched class dichotomies, governmental corruption, yet strong communal spirit found there.
Caryl McFarlane is an independent scholar and the director of International and Public Policy Programs at the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation in Princeton, New Jersey. Her research focuses on Caribbean literature, twentieth-century African American literature, and policy issues.