Review: How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House

TLDR: A novel that is unflinchingly rife with the worst parts of Bajan society, this book nevertheless clings to hope at its end. The story mainly follows Lala, a woman whose newborn baby dies in a struggle between her and her husband. Lala’s suffering from this, before and after, at the hands of her abusive husband, is a story of intergenerational trauma, a continuing violence against women she cannot escape from, because of the story of her mother and her grandmother. As a child, Lala is raised by her grandmother Wilma, who tells her the story of the one-armed woman, a fable with no clear information but the moral it provides – a moral each girl listening to the tale responds to differently. Telling stories, escaping the story society has already made for you and creating your own is what this novel focuses on.

Book: How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones

Synopsis: In Baxter’s Beach, Barbados, Lala’s grandmother Wilma tells the story of the one-armed sister, a cautionary tale about what happens to girls who disobey their mothers.

For Wilma, it’s the story of a wilful adventurer, who ignores the warnings of those around her, and suffers as a result. When Lala grows up, she sees it offers hope – of life after losing a baby in the most terrible of circumstances and marrying the wrong man. And Mira Whalen? It’s about keeping alive, trying to make sense of the fact that her husband has been murdered, and she didn’t get the chance to tell him that she loved him after all.

Publisher: Headline Publishing
Pages: 320

Review

(Reading time: 3 mins)

TW: Domestic violence, sexual assault

This book is set in Baxter’s Beach, Barbados, a place filled equally wealthy tourists enjoying a slice of paradise and locals trying to make money through this tourism. It is clear from the very beginning that this is a story that goes beyond beautiful beaches and island escapes. This is seen in a number of characters: Mira, who, even after having grown up in this place, mistakenly begins to sink into the idea of its luxuries, before her husband is murdered. Or Tone, who makes money sleeping with the women who come to Barbados for a holiday, and encounters bad luck and bad decisions constantly. Or, perhaps most clearly, through Wilma.

Wilma, Lala’s grandmother, starts the story by giving us the tale of the One-Armed Sister. Wilma is a very interesting character in this book, a kind of fixed presence in Baxter’s Beach, absolutely cognizant of all the awful underbelly that exists and either powerless – or unwilling – to do anything about it. Wilma is a character you both feel sorry for and feel angry at. Although she herself is stuck, she does not help to free either her daughter or her granddaughter, instead accepting the fate for them, to be victims of men’s violence. Does she lack agency because of where she is, or because she refuses to act? Does it matter?

Lala, who the story focuses on primarily, begins the story having and then losing a baby. Most of the story is spent as she tries to live with – and live beyond – her extremely abusive husband, Adan. Men’s violence is a key theme of this book as it explores how women try to live around it, how women carve spaces for themselves in society. We are shown several different women: Wilma; Lala; Lala’s mother Esme, who before the novel even begins is dead, killed by her husband; a woman named the Queen of Sheba, who is a prostitute being harassed by a policeman who thinks himself as a good guy; Mira Whalen, who watches her husband murdered.

Each woman tries to carve power for themselves in different ways. The Queen of Sheba, for example, tells the policeman anything she can so he will leave her alone, and no matter the fallout of that decision, its her choice. As there are different women in this story, there are different men, however we see mostly the similarities between them: “Lala is still on the floor coughing when Sergeant Beckles steps into the doorway.” This policeman is so caught up in the idea of his own prowess that Lala, beaten on the floor, is barely a blip for him. Compared to Adan, we might be tempted to think he is ‘one of the good ones.’ But they are all the same.

This book is by no means an easy read, but I would recommend it anyway. I think this is the first book I’ve ever read set in Barbados, and about people from Barbados, which is both an oversight of mine and a good reason to read it. Secondly, the style of writing is intense, but amazing. The claustrophobia of this cast, the endlessness of these cycles of trauma, the immoveable wall of male violence and the desperation of those – men and women, this book stresses from the very beginning when it is Mira Whalen’s husband who is murdered – who suffer from it.

“The beach stinks of stewing moss, sargassum seaweed and the putrefying guts of beached fishes, rotting in the warming air.” You can smell that beach, feel it, are repulsed by it. This is a far cry from the white-sand, golden-sun of tourists. It is a book that is full of sadness, it is unflinching.

Should you read it? It’s definitely a difficult read, there’s no breath of escape, and I would recommend minding the TW’s, but it is also absolutely worth the read.

Is this the author’s debut novel? Yes!

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