release date: July 16, 2013
Gloria’s story covers nearly thirty years, from the horrifying murder at the novel’s beginning to her discovery of a brother she never knew at its end. And in between is a series of hills and valleys,
losses and gains. A runaway at sixteen, Gloria raises her younger sister Marcia on the outskirts of Kingston, Jamaica. They are shop girls and domestics–until the house across the street beckons with its lively Calypso blaring from the radio on the porch, the friendly women, Beryl and Sylvia, the mouthwatering smells of home-cooked food, and the many visitors coming and going. Gradually the girls come to realize that Beryl and Sylvia are prostitutes, and even more gradually begin their working lives in the home.
The life of a woman on her own was not an easy one–but the wife of a married woman was often no better. Sybil explains that for a woman being a prostitute is a means to gain control of her life and claim her power: “…every woman is a whore … she is a thing. A thing for [men’s] comfort and pleasure, their pride or amusement. She there to mek them feel good. People think being a whore got to do with what gwaan in the bedroom but it not. Being a whore is about who is in charge. And who can mek who do exactly what they want …” She then goes on to explain that in many ways women are still enslaved. “The woman is still living her life under the control a the man, under his law and regulation and goodwill. And her body is occupied … it belong to him.” For these women, prostitution means freedom and self-determination–a spin on prostitution seldom posited.
But two men do play a role in determining Gloria’s destiny: Yang Pao, her Chinese customer-turned-lover; and Henry Wong, a wealthy wine merchant and grocer. In their own way, both men love her and Gloria’s life would have turned out much different, one suspects, if it hadn’t been for their protection and influence. In her twenties, Gloria gives birth to Pao’s daughter, Esther, and the two leave the house in Franklyn Town. Gloria goes into the money lending business with Henry and life for the family of two settles into a slow, Caribbean rhythm. In her thirties, Gloria becomes involved in the People’s National Party, even traveling to Cuba to help the Socialist movement there. She is introduced to Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan and realizes, “how the struggles of women different if you also poor, or black, or homosexual. And that it just as important as anything the white woman got to face.”
Cuban communism? Women’s liberation? Gay rights? Those plot strands were a weakness in the novel, in my opinion, and the character’s dialog sometimes turned didactic. Although I liked Gloria well enough, I would have loved the novel even more had it turned its eye more intently on the slice of life that is Jamaica. I’m interested to measure Julia against another Jamaican woman; Clara’s Heart, by Joseph Olshan, will be released as an e-book in early July and I’ve just started my NetGalley download. Stay tuned …