By Sarah Pemberton Strong (Alyson Books, 2002)
When I was a kid, my family used to go to the Caribbean for vacation in the summer. Once, on a beach in Barbados, I watched a conch fisherman in the rough surf right off shore, just a man with a set of fins, a long metal pole, and a knife, diving over and over again to the bottom about twelve feet below him. When he came to shore he had a shell in his hand that I coveted at once. I don't remember how the exchange began, but I must have asked him for it, because I remember what happened next in great detail.
"You want this?" he said. I told him I did. He looked at my parents nearby and his expression changed, to something not altogether friendly. Without a word, he slid his knife into the shell and made a long incision. The shell began to bleed, much more than I thought it was going to. Then the man took the shell in one hand and the metal pole in the other, and began to beat the shell, hard, until the shell spat pieces of dead conch onto the sand. When the man was done, the shell was speckled with gore; he bent down, washed the shell in the water surging around his feet, and handed it to me.
"There," he said. "There’s your shell."
Later I learned a little bit more about the Caribbean and its history; the ways that crime, revolution, the legacies of colonialism and slavery, and the fact that it is a paradise occasionally visited by savage weather have given the region a distinct eeriness — a sense of beauty and threat — that I only caught glimpses of as a tourist. When I read Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea a decade ago, it was a revelation, a book that had seemingly mined that eeriness deeply, and I wondered if I would ever come across its equal again.
Before I say what I am about to say, please know I am fully aware of Wide Sargasso Sea’s canonical status in both Caribbean and feminist literature, and that I dislike hyperbole when describing books. Now listen: Sarah Pemberton Strong's Burning the Sea is the heir and equal — and possibly superior to — Wide Sargasso Sea. It is a book of such grace and terror that I despair of finding another book like it for a long time.
Burning the Sea is about Michelle, an American, and Tollomi, a Cruzan, who have both lost touch with their families and the places they're from. Both also have unusual relationships with their pasts: Michelle has trouble remembering much of hers at all, while Tollomi remembers so much that he's drowning in it. They meet by chance in the Dominican Republic, when Tollomi, a charming polyglot, bails Michelle out when she is detained at the airport; thrown together, they fall quickly into an intense friendship as Michelle searches for a plot of DR land bequeathed to her by her grandfather while Tollomi begins an affair with a young Dominican man. The people they meet along the way draw them into Dominican opposition politics, as they may or may not become connected to a rash of fires being started in the luxury hotels along the shore. Meanwhile, there are hints that Michelle's past involves something she may not want to remember.
Strong brings in a lot of ideas at once, and for much of Burning the Sea all is exquisite tension, as the characters follow their desires and Strong elaborates upon and begins to connect her multiple themes. The first three quarters of the book have a dreamy, luxuriant menace to them; somehow, somewhere, on the next page, something is going to go terribly wrong. Then, in the final quarter, Burning the Sea becomes almost unbelievably good, though telling you how would ruin the book enough that I won't say anything more about what happens. It doesn't become merely a political screed, or soap opera, or melodrama, or horror story, as in lesser hands it very well might have. Instead, it becomes all these things at once, and also something transcendent: a rumination on identity, history, and memory; the violence shot through it all; and how to come to terms with them, nationally, personally, and politically.
The real reason I can't get Burning the Sea out of my head over a year after reading it, however, is the writing. With sentences sharp, elliptical, gorgeous, and sinister, Strong finds the same vein that Rhys tapped into in Wide Sargasso Sea and tears it wide open. Burning the Sea's ideas set the brain on fire, but Strong's writing stops the heart.
Given how fickle the book world can be, that a book this good has gone unrecognized is perhaps understandable; that it is currently out of print, as Burning the Sea seems to be, is baffling. This should be fixed — now — so that this book has a chance to sit alongside the company it deserves.
Brian Francis Slattery is an editor of the New Haven Review.