HERE COMES THE SUN, by Nicole Dennis-Benn. Liveright, 349 pp., $26.
When George Harrison composed “Here Comes the Sun” in 1969, he was playing hooky from a Beatles business meeting, lying low at Eric Clapton’s country estate. He was glad to see spring arrive in chilly England.
When Nicole Dennis-Benn wrote her “Here Comes the Sun,” she was living in New York and exorcising demons. It tells a riveting story, albeit one sounding a lament — a kind of anti-lullaby. Here the sun is “ungodly,” a source of drought and torment that the story’s matriarch “yearned to rip from the sky.”
Dennis-Benn grew up in Kingston, Jamaica, where she sets her tale. She left at age 17 to study at Cornell University. And like her character Thandi, the writer’s family expected her to pursue medicine. Thandi, in her crisp Catholic girls’ school uniform, longs to lighten her dark skin, and to be an artist.
So far, so much coming-of-age fodder. But Dennis-Benn spins a much more complex and desperate narrative than her cheerful book cover suggests. She begins and ends with Margot, Thandi’s comely older sister, who “has been employee of the month for several months in a row” at an upscale Montego Bay hotel.
In the second paragraph, we learn that Margot calmly sells her body to rich tourists to pay for Thandi’s schooling, and barters sex with the boss to keep her front desk job: “At first she despised herself for letting him touch her. But then she despised herself for the pride that made her believe she had a choice. What she got from it (and continues to get from it) was better than scrubbing floors.”
Margot is a vivid, cunning and relentless character — emblem of her creator’s keen interest in the unholy alignment of poverty and tourism in Jamaica. Walking to her fancy job, Margot “draws the attention of women carrying buckets of water on their heads, their mouths curved with malice and necks stiff with resentment.” As for the men, she “barely says hello to them and refuses to take their job applications with their crab toe request for menial work at the hotel.”
Margot is in love with Verdene Moore, an older, educated woman. This can get a person killed in homophobic Jamaica. Yet without Verdene, Margot finds “everything was black-and-white: Make money or die trying. Feel pain or feel nothing at all.”
The reader roots for the couple, even as Margot mires herself in enough betrayal and sexual treachery to make a telenovela aficionado blanch. Margo learned these brutal survival arts at the knee of her mother, a trinket vendor, who gave birth to Margot when she was 16. Both women pin their salvation on Thandi. It doesn’t go well.
This strikingly female-centered novel makes an interesting parallel to “A Brief History of Seven Killings,” Marlon James’ hypermasculine exploration of crime and politics that won the Man Booker Prize last year.
Both writers are Jamaican ex-patriots, both are gay, and both drench their novels in the patois of their homeland. In her first book, Dennis-Benn can’t be expected to match the molecular-level beauty of James’ sentences, and she doesn’t. But “Here Comes the Sun” rises on its own merits.
Read it to catch a new talent in the ascendancy.