Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Book Review: "The Star Side of Bird Hill" by Naomi Jackson

I was hoping this book would charm me more than it did, but it was still a well-written book about the power of family and the strength we find in times of despair.

When their mother's depression becomes too much for her to bear, 16-year-old Dionne and 10-year-old Phaedra are sent to live in Barbados for the summer with Hyacinth, the eccentric but strong-willed grandmother they barely know. Hyacinth, a midwife, is a pillar of the community, although some treat her differently because she also practices the spiritual rituals of obeah.

For Dionne, the summer in Barbados is both a punishment and a blessing. She does everything she can to avoid her grandmother's watchful eye as she tests her boundaries and explores her burgeoning sexuality, although she recognizes the emotional toll that takes. But at the same time, it is a bit of a relief to not have to care for Phaedra herself, or deal the burdens of living with a severely depressed mother.

"She knew intimately the precarious nature of their life, the way that it depended on a series of carefully constructed lies, the ones she told to get meat on credit at the butcher at the end of the month when her mother's money ran out; the ones she told to fend off her and Phaedra's teachers' suspicions; the ones she told to keep her friends from coming over to her house, and seeing her mother."

Phaedra is having a harder time, trying to understand the reasons her mother became ill and whether she will inherit those traits. In an effort to learn more about her grandmother's midwifery and her obeah practices, she confronts the knottiness of adult secrets, and realizes that as much as the excitement of getting older appeals to her, the risks frighten her a bit. She, too, is torn between the magic of Barbados and missing her mother.

The Star Side of Bird Hill is populated by rich, colorful characters, and Naomi Jackson's vivid descriptions of Barbados definitely bring its landscape, its culture, and its people to life. But while the story is interesting, its pieces fell into place a little too neatly and predictably for me, and it didn't hold my interest as much as I hoped it would. Still, this is a moving, thought-provoking book, which captures the emotional turmoil of growing up amidst crises as well as the strength a parent needs to love a child who is troubled.

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