With much anticipation, I began to read Oonya Kempadoo's first novel, Buxton Spice, expecting a complement to Brenda Chester DoHarris's bildungsroman The Colored Girl in the Ring: A Guyanese Woman Remembers. However, I soon determined that this rude, crude book focuses on the prurient tastes of Guyanese society. Lula, the protagonist, is one of four girls who become sexually aware in the village of Tamarind Grove, where the sex is explicit, raunchy, and lewd.
These adolescents are intent on learning about sex by a variety of ways. They listen to and spy on couples mating. They masturbate and rub up against each other. They allow older boys to fondle them. A library book called Man and Woman is closely examined. Kempadoo attempts humor with scenes in which the girls discuss how to mate donkeys and pigs. Even their broken dolls (Ken and Barbie) simulate the girls' version of "Husband and Wife." All of their activities are illicit, supposedly, for any girl child caught out with a boy is assumed to be promiscuous and subjected to a crass inspection.
In the process of their daily activities, we meet the detritus of society. Uncle Joe is a postmaster who went mad from too much studying. He spends his days rutting with pigs and exposing himself. Three whores - Bullet, Sugar Baby, and Rumshop Cockroach - live up to their nicknames. Sexy Marilyn is a woman who enjoys rape, while Ignatius DeAbro fondles his peers as well as their mothers. The beating of a thief caught hiding in a septic tank and the rape of a pastor's wife later found dead in a putrid mudflat are gratuitous scenes with no link to the plot and are particularly lurid.
While trees inexplicably all have names - Sweet Dungs, Male Genip, Sweet Genip, Small Mango, and the Dreamers Tree - the Buxton Spice, we learn somewhat clumsily, is a mango tree whose branches and leaves abut, even brush against the house. Lula fantasizes that this plant "knew everything and wouldn't tell me nuthing," though she hopes that it will protect her and her family in the fashion of Sylvie in Sarah Orne Jewett's tale "A White Heron." While a pine tree has a role in the Jewett short story, the tree in the Kempadoo novel is no anchor for the weak plot.
Kempadoo situates her novel during the administration of Linden Forbes Burnham, a malevolent president intent on insulting his enemies and humiliating the poor. Rarely do the different peoples of Guyana intermingle, for the politics of the country depend on enmity among the racial groups. Rather, blacks live in one village, Indians in another, with a scattering of Portuguese in both. Education, usually a trope for success in novels of this type, is a liability in Buxton Spice. It is assumed that the plight of one generation will be visited on the succeeding one, unless the progeny succeeds in going abroad.
Overall, I do not recommend "the horrible dark-road secrets, the plotting and the scheming" of Buxton Spice.
James Madison University