Review: How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones (2021)

Blurb:

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.

HOW THE ONE-ARMED SISTER SWEEPS HER HOUSE is the powerful, intense story of three marriages, and of a beautiful island paradise where, beyond the white sand beaches and the wealthy tourists, lies poverty, menacing violence and the story of the sacrifices some women make to survive.

Review

I am so grateful to Antonia Whitton and the author for my proof copy of this incredible book, which I received in exchange for an honest review.

I have just finished reading this, and I am still reeling. The sheer force and power of the narrative has left me feeling as if I have been standing on a beach in a storm, giant waves crashing terrifyingly close, drenching me with icy water. It has been such a visceral, emotional experience reading this novel that I am not sure I can articulate my thoughts on this brilliant novel with the eloquence it deserves, but I’ll have a go.

This story is awash with violence, and I do need to add a warning that if themes of domestic abuse, child loss, rape, to name a few, are triggering for you, this is not the right book for you. If, however, you want a story that takes you deep into the heart of the lives of characters whose very survival is a precarious thing, their existence balanced on a knife edge, their bodies vulnerable and exposed, their options narrowed to desperate choices in extreme circumstances, then I can tell you that this could well be one of the most impactful reads I’ve ever experienced.

Cherie Jones exposes the disparity between the picture postcard beauty of Barbados as a tropical paradise and the dark reality of poverty-stricken life, showing how the rich tourists who make the island their playground have become a warped part of the ecosystem. The relationship between the locals and the tourists is explored in all its intricate complexities, and the ways these separate but dependent lives intersect and collide is explosive and often destructive.

The characters in the novel are what held me gripped, unable to tear myself away: Lala, Tone, Adan, Mira Whalen, Wilma, Beckles the policeman, each one was so real to me, so complex and nuanced and such a clever mixture of products of their environments and strikingly unique individuals. Lala is one of the most heart-wrenchingly real protagonists I’ve encountered in a long time, and I cried for her on more than one occasion while reading this book. And Esme, her mother, whose story hangs in the background almost as apocryphal as the titular Sister: even as I knew what was coming for her, the final reveal of her fate broke me.

I am absolutely in awe of how fiercely talented Cherie Jones is as a writer. Even amid all the violence, what shines through is the utter inventiveness and confidence of her style: the Bajan dialect leaking out of the dialogue and into the prose at strategic points; the startlingly effective use of “tricky” voices such as second person “you” and a beautiful section in the collective first person plural “we”; whole passages written as hypotheticals that spin the reader out of the narrative and then haul us back in – it is stunning. This is the work of a writer who has such firm control over her material, such courageous urgency in the desire to share this story – I was physically affected by how powerful the writing was.

If you haven’t already gathered, I was completely blown away by How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House. I find it hard to believe that this is a debut novel. It has the tension and life-or-death stakes of a thriller, some of the most intricately-drawn characters I’ve ever read, and huge, powerful themes that beat an insistent, captivating rhythm as the skilfully constructed narrative surges to its dramatic conclusion. I am going to be thinking (and shouting!) about this book for a very long time.

How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones will be published by Tinder Press on 21st January 2021 and is available to pre-order here.

One thought on “Review: How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones (2021)

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