With the publication of Bruised Hibiscus, Elizabeth Nunez has greatly enriched the rapidly developing field of African diaspora literature. In this novel Nunez weaves such a rich and well-crafted tapestry of legend, myth, and history that one cannot help comparing her to Toni Morrison, whose Song of Solomon stands out as a masterpiece among novels of the African diaspora. Set in Trinidad, where Nunez was born, Bruised Hibiscus tells a story of passion, sexual repression, adultery, class conflict, and murder. The novel's two principal characters, Rosa and Zuela, were, for a brief period during their adolescence, inseparable. But time, circumstances, and social class set them apart as adults until two heinous murders -- crimes of passion -- and the terror that grips the women of the island in their wake, cause Rosa to transgress the social stratification that separates people along caste, class, and color lines and seek out Zuela as the one person who can help her ease the torment gnawing at her soul.
The novel opens with the grisly discovery, by a fisherman in the village of Otahiti, of the remains of a white woman that have been stuffed in a brown burlap coconut bag and dumped into the sea. The year is 1954. Trinidad is still a British colony and the debilitating effects of British colonialism and exploitation are symbolized by familial relations. Rosa's mother Clara Appleton is left to languish like other wives of British sugar cane planters and overseers while their husbands satisfy their sexual desires with native women and - sometimes -- with men. Rosa's husband Cedric lives with the humiliating knowledge that his father committed suicide by walking into the sea and drowning after his British lover broke off their relationship. Cedric also lives with the frustration of always being seen as inferior in the eyes of whites, no matter how well-read and intellectual he proves himself to be. Clara Appleton is the sole exception. Cedric's position as headmaster of the local secondary school makes him a perf ect match for Rosa, the youngest of her three daughters, who at age twenty-eight, is considered too old and therefore unsuitable for marriage to an Englishman or white Trinidadian. Despite her racism and class-consciousness, Clara Appleton consents to her daughter's marriage to the son of a black fisherwoman and the East Indian man who worked for her husband in order to keep her own indiscretions from being revealed. Rosa accepts Cedric's proposal purely to satisfy her sexual desires --her middle name is Nymphia -- and Cedric marries Rosa out of revenge for his suffering as one of the "Queen's darker subjects."
The discovery of the murdered and mutilated white woman coincides with an abrupt change in Rosa's passion. After three years of marriage, she no longer desires Cedric. As speculation spreads that the woman was murdered because her husband, an East Indian doctor, caught her in flagrante delicto, Cedric becomes increasingly obsessed with the idea that his wife is being unfaithful to him. The news of a second vicious murder -- this time of a black woman by two Trinidadian brothers -- and Cedric's ever menacing and irrational behavior cause Rosa to make a pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima in the impoverished village of Laventille. It is on the hill leading to the Shrine that Rosa encounters Zelda, whose life-script is linked to hers by their shared childhood memory of looking through an hibiscus bush and witnessing the sexual assault of a young brown girl by "a man old enough to be the girl-child's father."
The image of the young girl behind the hibiscus bush is one of several recurring images that contribute to the lyrical, almost incantatory quality of Bruised Hibiscus. They are disturbing images: images of a notorious gangster, Boysie Singh, who the islanders believe murders and cuts out the hearts of young women to rub on the hooves of his racehorses to make them run faster; of two pigs devouring the butchered body of a woman named Melda; of the opium-addicted Chinaman's recurring nightmares of his wife and daughter being slaughtered back in China; of Zelda, not much older than the "girl-child" behind the hibiscus bush, being bargained over by her father and the Chinaman who came to her village in Venezuela "to buy alpagats [sandals] for his store and took her, too." The Chinaman promised Zuela's father that he would treat her like a daughter. Shortly thereafter, he made her his wife. By the time she and Rosa meet on the hill to the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima, Zuela is a worn out, twenty-nine-year-old woma n with ten children and a murderous rage against her tyrannical husband boiling inside her, brought on by the news traveling by word of mouth that women are being killed. Zuela is able to act upon her rage and escape a marriage that was a virtual prison. Rosa tries but cannot escape. The forces of evil are much too great, even for Mary Christophe, the ancestral figure/Obeahwoman who tries, but fails, to stem the tide of events that send Rosa to her fate in the sea.
In the "Author's Notes" at the end of the novel, Nunez lists two murders, one occurring in 1954, the other in the 1960s, and the 1977 Black Power revolution in Trinidad as real events upon which Bruised Hibiscus is loosely based. But these facts are only the framework. A very gifted novelist, Nunez never falls into mere reportage. She keeps her distance and lets her imagination and beautiful writing prevail. The result is a stunning and often chilling work of fiction that one will find hard to put down or to forget.
Bruised Hibiscus is Nunez's third novel. She published her first, When Rocks Dance, in 1986. Set in Trinidad near the end of the colonial period, When Rocks Dance is a haunting tale of a beautiful Trinidadian woman's obsession with owning land. It also tells of a society in transition, where religious beliefs, conflicts of class, and intraracial racism play themselves out against a lush natural background that harbors an invisible world of spirits whose presence affects, often with devastating results, the lives of those the spirits claim to protect.
The belief in an invisible world of spirits and in Obeah, a Yoruba-derived religion similar to Haitian Voudun, is a theme that runs throughout Nunez's fiction. In her second novel, Beyond the Limbo Silence (which won the 1999 Independent Press Award for Multicultural Fiction), Obeah is embodied in Courtney, one of three young women from the Caribbean who earn scholarships to a small Catholic college in rural Wisconsin as an experiment in integration. Told from the first-person perspective of Sara Edgehill and based loosely on Nunez's own experiences as a college student in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, in 1963, Nunez exposes the hypocrisy of white integrationist sponsors of black students. She also plays out a drama of cultural differences between blacks from the Caribbean environment and African Americans through the relationship between Sara and Sam, a young black man from Milwaukee. When Sara becomes deeply depressed, first over Sam's departure to Mississippi to join the voters rights campaign, and later over her pr egnancy, it is Courtney, transmogrified into an Obeahwoman, who induces the dream state that reconnects Sara to Africa and Trinidad and the myths of sea cows and mermaids that regularly invaded her imagination when she was a child.
It is evident from her novels that Elizabeth Nunez's imagination is likewise a storehouse of stories, legends, and myths. She is an accomplished writer who is creating a memorable space for herself in African diaspora literature. She is one of those rare novelists who must be read.
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2001|
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