Fabian Comrie’s strange, overcrowded historical novel is set on the small Caribbean island of St. Mark during the 19th century.
The novel opens with the island’s history, a brutal story of slavery and its cruel aftermath of indentured servitude and apprenticeship. While the wealth of detail here initially dilutes the fiction that follows, it establishes slavery as the unspoken undercurrent dominating the narrative.
Once the book turns to fiction, readers meet Sheldon Shaw, plantation owner and former slave trader now wracked by guilt. Making amends for past sins, he frees and pays his workers, offers them an education, and makes one, Paul Dogle, manager of his estate. While others attempt with less success to acclimate to emancipation, the island struggles toward its future.
Things change with the arrival of the wealthy Lord Maxi-Million Van Barron (sometimes spelled “Baron”), who aims to dominate the island. He devises plots, triggering counter-plots ending in violence and, frequently, death. The battle for St. Mark’s destiny ultimately sees Maxi-Million, a gang of hired guns, and those determined to milk the island for their own gain, pitted against Shaw, Dogle, a few like-minded citizens, a pair of English noblemen, and even Queen Victoria. Their strongest weapon, though, turns out to be Shaw’s adopted daughter, a teenage seer able to predict future danger while healing the sick.
This lengthy conflict is the book’s main theme and is handled with aplomb all the way to its bloody conclusion. The characters introduced along the way are generally well drawn. Unfortunately, some of the lesser figures are given slight shift, unconnected with, and thus interrupting, the flow of the main narrative. Occasional unrelated side trips intended to convey the flavor of the island’s culture also diminish the narrative flow, as do some errors in grammar or usage.
The flaws mentioned make for an uneven read. Still, the story offers insight into both the dreams and nightmares of the colonial years in the West Indies.
Also available in hardcover.