“Did the sun come?” That’s the question that crept into my mind one morning around 4 a.m., when I finished the last page of Nicole Dennis Benn’s debut novel about the life of a working class mother-two daughter family in rural Jamaica. The question lingered there for some weeks, up until a few days ago, when I realized how the sun arrived. Margot, the main character, survives—a fitting outcome in an ode to those who live through orchestrated impoverishment in Jamaica. And while we don’t know what becomes of her younger sister Thandi, the choices Thandi makes are what offer hope.
Margot vs. Alphonso
Margot is ambitious for herself, but even more so for Thandi, who attends the elite Catholic high school, St. Emmanuel High. The lead character’s relationship with her mother, Delores, is weakly held together by threads that are burnt by the end of the book, for a reason most heartbreaking to imbibe. She finances Thandi’s needs, and bankrolls her household, by performing multiple jobs at the local Palm Star Resort; her highest earner is sex work with foreign male clients, some of whom are regular customers—a mazy situation, once we meet her true romantic love.
Margot spends most of the book haggling over a promotion with her boss Alphonso Wellington, who has recently wrestled ownership of the hotel from his father and Margot’s former boss, Reginald Senior. Alphonso is an unwanted heir to the family wealth, which includes coffee farms and rum estates, and when he continues to deny Margot, she takes matters into her own hands. The commitment to raising herself and her sister out of impoverishment that Margot maintains causes her intimate relationship with a returned resident from England, Verdene, to be destroyed.
A Buffet of Social Ills
Here Comes The Sun decries several of Jamaica’s social ills: impoverishment of rural communities through abuse and neglect; environmental destruction propelled by construction efforts that promise widespread economic spoils, but only benefit those who commissioned them; sexual exploitation of young girls; skin bleaching inspired by young women’s insecurity about the social acceptability of their dark hues; the near nonexistence of deep platonic—not to mention romantic—relationships between citizens of different social classes; sex tourism enabled by local hoteliers, and enjoyed by foreigners for whom Jamaica is an escape from hometown rules and eyes; how social stigma and scorn lead homosexual women to imprison themselves; how religious dogma is used to justify bullying homosexual women; how impoverishment compromises the physical and mental health of Jamaica’s working class, and converts their living into surviving.
The book feels well researched and honest, and is filled with enough plot twists to make you gasp at least twice.
It’s a Survival Story
Though Margot takes center stage, I found Thandi’s storyline most enjoyable. Perhaps, as Ammmu of The God of Small Things observes, this is because people usually prefer the parts that they most identify with. Although Thandi loves art and freezes her subjects into believable representations, both her sister and her mother dissuade her from pursuing this subject in the regional CXC examinations. No art for Thandi. No freedom to indulge in what she enjoys. Even the liberty to be with whom she loves—Charles, the paw-paw-fragranced and intelligent son of a fisherman—is off limits to her.
Margot, too, is not free to love. Although her ambition to be hotel manager contributes to her losing the woman who has captured her attention since she was a child, it is clear that even if they had stayed together, their relationship would have been unassailed only in a few enclaves in Jamaica.
It’s an Ironic Story
I found two main ironies in Here Comes The Sun: At face value Margot seems ambitious, even expedient, to a fault. She is a tall poppy in River Bank, and one of her ‘employees’ once tells her that she has no heart. But Margot wants simple things: That Thandi be freed from the fate of the uneducated and spared sexual assault, and that she, Margot, be able to manifest her potential. She also wants to live with Verdene, without blood being shed. It is not Margot’s ambition that drives her to end up living “from one orgasm to the next”, but the circumstances in which she finds herself. Benn’s novel paints a very clear picture of how effort can be strangled by environment, specifically working class realities, turning the achievement of small tasks into disastrous decathlons.
However, to be successful typically means to get to a better place. Delores is a higgler who cannot provide for her family; Margot makes the best of her administrative role in a hotel; Thandi prioritizes career happiness and eschews the idea of becoming a “distinguished pauper”— we are not sure how Thandi ends up, but she seems committed to securing fulfilment and financial independence. As sad as the life of this family seems, they are incrementally improving their lineage.
It’s a Specific Story
Delores’ career as a craft market vendor is one of many parts of the narrative that I found familiar. As a teenager, I discovered that these sellers can go weeks without making a single sale, despite staging their wares early every morning and packing them back up before hustling an evening ride home. This knowledge still flabbergasts me, but helped me understand Delores’ rationale for one of her past choices, maddening as the decision is. Other parts of the narrative felt unfamiliar, even unbelievable: When Margot threatens Alphonso near the end of the novel, he responds favorably. I would expect that in reality, he would use his financial power and social influence, and her lack thereof, to silence her. I also had a hard time picturing Margot and Thandi confronting their mother about the ways in which she failed to protect them when they were children, so drily, swiftly. I imagine the words would unfold from their lips with hesitation, and over time, and especially for Thandi, perhaps at an older age.
Still, I felt ill-equipped to measure this story’s approximation to reality, which is what I love most about this book. Like those in Thandi’s sketches, Nicole Dennis-Benn’s subjects arrest attention. Together they tell a story based on a specific reality—the lives of working class and impoverished people in a rural tourist town; those from such communities will see themselves in the pages, although many people will relate to the tale. Reading it drove me to reach out to friends who grew up in such towns in Jamaica, to find out how much of the story struck a chord with them.
Here Comes The Sun’s characters inform the reader about the virulent harm that unfolds—for generations—when segments of Jamaica’s population are blocked from accessing channels that could empower them, and when tourism development agendas are prioritized over local community rights and needs. Each page provides a peek into daily injustices that do not make the news but should; the book shows why all Jamaicans should be concerned with making the country equitable, and how those most affected by its injustices work every day to save themselves.
Have you read it? Let me know what you think!