Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Star Side of Bird Hill by Naomi Jackson

One of the highlights of my trip to the Trinidad and Tobago Literary Festival (Bocas Lit Fest) was meeting Naomi Jackson. We met during the Business of Translation session and subsequently went to lunch together. She helped me with the menu since it was the first time in my life I’d heard of buss-up-shut. And I was only familiar with callaloo because I remembered seeing it on an episode of The Cosby Show.

A couple of days later, Naomi and Tiphanie Yanique, the author of How to Escape From a Leper Colony and Land of Love and Drowning, were featured in the Family Ties session. Stephen Narain facilitated the discussion about books inspired by family stories. That’s where I learned about The Star Side of Bird Hill’s cover art. It was a painting given to Naomi by the artist, Sheena Rose. Naomi requested that the art be her book’s cover after realizing that it’d be perfect for Star Side. Some said this was wishful thinking with a powerhouse publisher like Penguin Press, but Naomi pulled it off! She writes in detail about "The Perfect Covergirl" at Literary Hub!

Naomi gave me an advanced copy of the book before leaving Trinidad, but you know how we do here at Reading Has Purpose, all reviews posted genuinely reflect my thoughts and are not influenced by external sources. So here we go...

We meet Dionne and Phaedra two weeks after their arrival to Barbados. Their mother, Avril, has sent them from Brooklyn to stay with their grandmother, Hyacinth, for the summer. It’s clear right away that sixteen-year-old Dionne doesn’t want to be there, while her younger sister Phaedra takes advantage of the time she can spend Hyacinth. 

While most of the community’s citizens enjoy participating in activities organized by The Bird Hill Church of God, Dionne would rather fill her time playing with make-up, clothes, and boys. She often reminisces about her best friend and fun times back in Brooklyn. But she also recalls times when she was responsible for taking care of herself and Phaedra because Avril suffered from depression, and their father was no longer around.

In the meantime, Hyacinth is teaching Phaedra several skills, dream interpretation, midwifery, and obeah, to name a few. Phaedra fills with pride as Hyacinth reveals details about Avril’s childhood and the way people on the island loved her. Phaedra gets closer to Hyacinth, literally, during their time together as she yearns for the affection she never received from her mother.

Dionne begrudgingly begins spending more time with Hyacinth about halfway through the book and Hyacinth has to tell her more than a few times to mind her manners. I even found myself losing patience with Dionne because in the first place, I never had the gall to disrespect my grandmother, and in the second place, I would’ve gotten smacked long before Dionne did if I somehow found the courage get out of line.

Top L to R: Naomi, Stephen, Tiphanie 

As the girls continue to wait for news on when they will return home, an unexpected event leads the girls’ father to find them in Barbados. While Dionne see’s his return as her way to escape from the island, Phaedra isn’t so sure. Hyacinth tries to warn Dionne that no good can come from the father who never saw fit to come for them until tragedy struck. He tries to explain his relationship with Avril to the girls and the novel comes to a suspenseful close as his actions reveal that Hyacinth and Phaedra's concerns are warranted.

Although this book is obviously a summer release, with numerous references to the Caribbean climate, it didn’t feel like a summer read to me. I guess because I like to associate summer with lighter, quicker reads. The characters are dealing with a lot and the narrative slows down at times. But all in all, I couldn't help but do a little reminiscing of my own as Naomi envelops the readers in local culture with references to food, festivals, and climate throughout the book. I've already marked her Washington, DC book tour stop on my calendar. You can go here to see if she's coming to a city near you. The Star Side of Bird Hill hits shelves today!

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Darkowaa said...

Hmmm, interesting. I pre-ordered this last month - mostly because of the amazing book cover art and the Barbados setting. I hope I enjoy this! :)

Shannon said...

Darkowaa, did you get a chance to read her article about the cover art? I've seen a few reviews and it seems the cover is a major hit or miss, but I applaud the way it came to be.

I think I could've written 4 or 5 more paragraphs on this book. I was back and forth about whether or not to mention the homosexual character, but now I'm wondering, how could I not! Also, I missed the dialect, though I'm not sure how authors decide whether or not to include it and I haven't read enough Carib lit to know whether or not most of them do.

Darkowaa said...

I just read the article on Lit Hub. I'm glad she was able to use the cover she wanted, even though publishing companies have their own art departments and don't usually encourage using outside cover photos. I love love looove how the book cover art represents who she and her family represent! She's lucky that she was able to use it! I'm excited for the book, esp if there is a homosexual character in there - just because the Caribs are known to be homophobic (from what my Carib friends tell me). Hmmm, we'll see!