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The Swinging Bridge.

The Swinging Bridge. Ramabai Espinet. Toronto: HarperFlamingo Canada, 2003. 307 pp. $32.95 hc.

Ramabai Espinet moves into fiction for adults with this novel of partially losing and partially finding cultural reference points. From India to Trinidad to Canada, a family's stories become fragmented, and the novel traces Mona Singh's attempt to trace what is left and to make some sort of sense of it that will be useful. Mona's quest is focused principally upon the women in the tale, and not for nothing does the book begin with a brief sketch of the background leading her great-grandmother, Gainder, to embark for Trinidad in 1879, the situation of the indentured female laborer being one that Espinet has also written scholarly material on.

From then on the novel weaves together past and present, along with a vast and colorful variety of references in an attempt to gather as much together before the family's locations and common memories splinter too irrevocably for the lines of connection to remain active. These references include Indian history, plants, food, local music, speech patterns, and vocabulary in Hindi, Patois, and English, family genealogy, and life in Trinidad and in Canada (Toronto and Montreal principally). The continuities amidst the fractures are suggested above all by Mona's brother, Kello, wanting to buy back a piece of old family land on the island, not for himself, but to suture wounds that have been open for too long.

The family that Mona unravels goes back to Gainder--significantly, not a patriarchal point of origin--and demonstrates complex relations with its Indian origins as with the Afro-Saxon cultural nexus with which it shares Trinidad. Characters are constantly reflecting upon issues of culture and ethnicity, usually referred to by everybody in the book as "race," and the impact of attempts at separation, purity, or assimilation. No radical option comes out of the book favorably, a dynamically proactive balancing and mixing act appearing as the best option, despite the inevitable experience of loss and gaps such an act ensures.

In chronicling this material, Espinet is especially convincing when she deals with Mona's childhood in Trinidad, the background behind her parents' relationship and the way people in families punish each other, her father's Naipaul-like rejection of what he felt was corrupt, vicious, and limiting (although including books by West Indian writers whose only purpose is "to make us look bad" [p. 72]), tension between people of Indian, Creole, or African identification, the contrasting trajectories of her aunts and uncles, leaving for Canada, eventual disappointment on the part of her parents' generation about the results of emigration, "not one single bit more advanced than when we left" (p. 95), the differing perspectives of relatives back in Trinidad and the subtle operation of ethnic distinctions there, along with the centrality of the body and the consequences of the varied ways its appetites have been repressed.

The richness of the fare that memory has to digest could have rendered the book so disjunctive that it would have become irremediably fractured, as the family's history threatens to, but Espinet manages to suggest both the pain and the complexity of the tri-cultural histories she is investigating as well as the successes that writing it down can achieve. Speaking of things among living family must not be neglected, and family tensions can lead to the kind of extensive wastelands of misunderstanding the novel shows us, but time and death mean that speaking may not be enough, that attention has to be paid to saving things more solidly. This is especially difficult when Mona's family--all families--also feel they need to hide things, or to make them known only when circumstances appear propitious. Choosing when to tell and how therefore becomes integral to the tale, so that the question of how to represent family history becomes sharply self-conscious with respect to the shape of the narrative. A linear jog-trot would not be responsive to a tale that is felt more in terms of nerves radiating out among memories than a coherent timeline.

Espinet's writing is resonant with the often heavy emotions of the subjects she is dealing with-including that of Mona's brother, Kello, who is in his last months of life in a Toronto hospice-but never defeatist or vexatious. The complex family history is rendered in intelligent and sensitive prose without becoming turgid or difficult to follow. The stories Espinet has to tell encourage continual reflection upon issues of origins, Creoleness, and responsibility.

At the end Mona has arrived at a place where she feels sale, and a large part of this is due to memory being "intact," despite including a "heart felled by pain" (p. 305). The need for "more legends, more stories" (p. 79) has been answered, and it is an urgent need given that it is in Mona's generation that "everything had changed" (p. 151).

David Callahan

Department of Languages and Cultures

University of Aveiro (Portugal)

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Author:Callahan, David
Publication:Canadian Ethnic Studies Journal
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2004
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