Tuesday, May 12, 2009
Review of The Other Side of Paradise
I belong to the Amazon Vine program. They send you a free book in exchange for you writing a review of the book. This is the review I wrote of the above book.
I picked this book because of the wonderful cover photograph. But the writing itself did not disappoint. I was somewhat skeptical at first, because it's a memoir written in the first person present, and I am a little tired of that. Frank McCourt used the first person present to great effect in Angela's Ashes, but not everybody is Frank McCourt. It takes a good writer to pull off this tense and person, and Staceyann Chin, although a young writer, is a very good writer.
Like Frank McCourt, she had a terrible childhood. Again, this has become something of a commonplace, sadly, in memoirs. But a terrible childhood does not a great memoir make. Sure, an impoverished, brutal childhood arouses our bourgeois voyeurism, but it takes more than shock value to make a great book. It takes great writing.
Ms.Chin's writing is not show-offy and her style is not elaborate or self-consciously arty. It's just exact: you can see and hear her characters and places. The patois of Jamaica gets into your mind and you want to hear these characters talk some more in their beautiful, expressive dialect.
The story can get a little wearing in its relentless grimness. Basically, all the adults in young Stacyanne's life fail to take proper adult responsibility for her and her brother: her mother abandons them, her father won't acknowledge that he is her father, her aunt beats her, and her male cousins try to rape her. Only her grandmother is a steadfast, reliable adult in her life, but when she is too old to work and must go to live with one of her sons, Stacyanne and her brother are pretty much on their own.
Stacyanne realized early on that her ticket out of the back side of Paradise was academic achievement, and she studied hard and with a vengeance. She was admitted to a prestigious girls' high school and then to a university. But eventually, because of her sexual orientation, she had to leave Jamaica. She went to New York, where she lives, writes, and performs today.
So the story has a happy ending and could be an inspiration to any young person struggling with an unhappy home life and unloving adults, especially if that young person is gay.