Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Review: 'Til the Well Runs Dry by Lauren Francis-Sharma

There's something a little bit exotic, a little bit magical about Trinidad. And it's not a place that appears often in fiction, or at least not in fiction that I've read. So I was intrigued by the setting of Lauren Francis-Sharma's debut novel set mainly in Trinidad, capturing life on the island, and filling in little bit of the history and politics of the mid-twentieth century as Trinidad moved towards independence and self-governance. But more than a Trinidadian story, this is a family story, a strong woman story, a mother and children story all told with the unique flavor of the place.

In 1943 in Trinidad, Marcia Garcia is just a teenager raising two small boys she calls her brothers and trying her best to keep food on the table for the three of them. She is a talented seamstress but her family obligations weigh on her and prevent her from being as successful as she might otherwise have been. Marcia is a beautiful mixture of many of the races of people on the islands and she catches the eye of an Indian police officer, Farouk Karam, who becomes enchanted with her to the point that he visits an Obeah woman whose black magic and herbs can guarantee him that he will find his way into Marcia's heart. Although their relationship starts under the cloud of the disappearance of Marcia's twin brothers, they quickly come to find happiness together. Marcia falls pregnant and she and Farouk marry. But his proper, successful family is horrified by Marcia and Farouk denies her and accuses her of actually being the mother of the two missing boys she loved so dearly and having an incestuous relationship with her father. Despite his family's vocal disapproval and these terrible allegations, he cannot quit her so while they remain married, they never do live as husband and wife; Farouk visits only occasionally, enough for them to produce four children, Patsy, Jacqueline, Wesley, and baby Yvonne. Marcia struggles along, working to support her growing family, persevering despite hardships. At the same time, Farouk is rising in the police force, seeing corruption and vice within the ranks, even extending to Marcia's powerful, wealthy, mostly estranged uncle who is high up in government. And when there is a huge scandal, it leaves no one in the family untouched.

The heat and magic of the island is coupled here in the novel with the subsistence and borderline poverty in which Marcia and the children live.  Within these pages, there is the Trinidadian version of voodoo, the political corruption of the 1940s through the 1960s, drugs, prejudice, education and the drive to better one's lot, and above all the importance of family. Marcia is strong and a survivor despite the terrible hand she's been dealt by life. She, Farouk, and Jacqueline, their second daughter, each narrate portions of the story, sharing their hopes and dreams and the reality of their lives. Much of the dialogue is in a sing-songy dialect but once the reader gets used to it, it is easy enough to follow. When the story takes Marcia to the US, the plot becomes disorienting and a little confusing but that mirrors Marcia's own experience as an immigrant, abused, held captive, and taken advantage of. Trinidad plays a large background role through most of the book but when Marcia finally leaves it, her desire is not for the land of her youth but for her family, for them to join her and to make a new life with her. Francis-Sharma has captured a dysfunctional family in all its ups and downs, the fates that hold it back, and the ways in which each character is always a part of the same fabric even when life doesn't go quite as planned. The story is well written and if there's no happily ever after but instead a concession to reality, it feels true and genuine and possible.

Thanks to LibraryThing Early Reviewers and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.

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