Reviewed by Robert Goodman.
By Curdella Forbes, Faber and Faber, $29.99.
Curdella Forbes A Tall History of Sugar starts biblically. Rachel Fisher finds a baby in a basket on the edge of the ocean. She calls the baby Moshe, after the biblical prophet who was pulled from the water by Pharaoh’s daughter, and together with her husband Noah, unofficially adopts him. The couple live in Jamaica, the year is 1958, four years before that country would attain independence from Britain. A Tall History of Sugar is Moshe’s story but it is also the story of his companion/soulmate/ twin from another mother Arrienne who he meets and befriends on the first day of school.
From the beginning, Moshe is not like other children – his skin is pale, almost translucent, he has differently coloured eyes and his hair is blonde at the front and dark at the back. Rachel has to deal with this and the talk of the village in which she lives, and Moshe himself has to deal with the need to fit in with his peers. Fortunately he has Arri, with whom he has a psychic connection, as children they can communicate without talking. And it is only later, when Moshe tried to find out who his parents are, and draws the attention of Alva, another fellow student, that there comes a rift between them that, in the late 1970s, eventuates in him stowing away on a boat and travelling to England.
A Tall History of Sugar is a fractured romance of sorts and needs to be taken as such. There is very little in the way of plot outside of boy meets girl, boy runs away from girl (and then the reasons are explained) and boy comes back to girl. Forbes also tries to reflect the history of the time, political turmoil in Jamaica, race riots in Britain and while she is able to capture a sense of time and place, these events they don’t connect strongly to Moshe or Arri’s lives and their relationship to feel relevant in anything other than a scene-setting sense. So that while A Tall History of Sugar, may be in some ways a tall tale, it is difficult to get a sense of the history of Jamaica or Britain or their relationship to each other.
The narrative is rich, full of speech that tries to capture Jamaican speech (paraphrased when that might be unclear). And it is steeped in references to its influences. From the biblical, to fairy tales (Arri often refers to herself as a princess), to more modern fantastical tales like Kafka’s Metamorphosis or Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. But despite this textual richness, it is hard to sustain much interest in the absence of a strong plot driver. Compounding this is a technique where every time the action starts to move forward it drops back into the past, to explain actions or situations.
A Tall History of Sugar is a beautifully written book full of vivid descriptions and memorable characters with an often fairy-tale feel. But it becomes increasingly difficult to stay invested in those characters as they wander apart and then drift back together.
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