“Hyacinth said that it was a gift to greet a new day, and that you needed to meet it in a way that showed how grateful you were to have your life spared. “
This sentence, on page 29 of Naomi Jackson’s 298 page beautiful and engaging novel, Star Side of Bird Hill, essentially sums up the entire story. It brings to light a cacophony of seasoned wisdom and lessons for the youth who believe they are invincible. Set in St. John, Barbados a town on the east side of the island full of spirit — not just from the noted church that quietly but profoundly becomes a symbolic character (in my opinion), but from the inhabitants and the environment itself– and subset in Brooklyn, New York, a massive borough redefined by emotional overload and a chaotically profound Renaissance, the story follows the lives of two girls, sisters, Dionne and Phaedra and their transition between two worlds that hold the distinct similarity of having family in both and Hyacinth, their feisty conscientious grandmother .
Star Side of Bird Hill burst through my senses from the opening lines like a blazing sun on the clear Caribbean Sea, glistening beautifully blue; alluring, passionate and inviting. I completed the reading of Star Side…, cruising toward the Bahamas enveloped by tropical breezes and the pungently sweet smell of the Atlantic Ocean. Periodically, I’d close my eyes and lose myself in Hyacinth’s rose garden, or among the tombstones, or on dirt roads that led to sandy beachfronts. Through effortless story telling Naomi takes her readers on that journey, that smooth yet complex cruise, through thunderous storms and sweltering heat, docking in paradise.
The star of the novel, the one character that demonstrates the greatest growth and development is difficult to exact, but Phaedra, who at ten, is taken through an emotional whirlwind of familial dynamics, presents an omnipotence that Jackson eases in like air. Led by the antics of her older sister, Dionne, Phaedra is endowed with the benefit of seeing the tale of two cities through three sets of generational eyes. Late night antics, fitting into an unfamiliar environment, religious influences and community camaraderie shape her into a child who never truly loses her innocence, but rapidly matures and opts to become a member of the new world in which she finds herself. For this we adore her, sometimes forgetting that she is still very young. Jackson gently but deliberately weaves a story that encapsulates the reader in the traditions of the “old country” and meshes it with the “new” generation from the states. She brings into the fold the challenges of mental illness and that subject remains subtle but constant, effectively helping to shape the understanding of personalities and events.
The novel covers the relationship of three female family members, a grandmother and her two grand-daughters, during what was initially a summer visit (this after Avril’s demons go awry). With masterful and vivid descriptions, Jackson allows us into the daily and sometimes challenging lives of the women; allows us to venture through that forbidden door, and plant ourselves in a quiet corner. The reader is provided a journey into the complex simplicity of love, honor, tradition, and growth. The matriarch, Hyacinth (grandmother), a woman steeped in Bajan traditions yet keen to the understanding of the present shows he reader the depth of her strength and conviction to her church. She loves her granddaughters with the same love she has for her daughter, their mother. Her life has been filled with matters that made her strong, but, from my perspective, weakened enough of her resolve to soften her. The girls visit was a renewal, a breath of air, and the progressive tone of the story reflects that renaissance. The reader thus imbibes the lives of all of these characters.
Jackson produces an amazing tale filled with a kaleidoscope of emotion and depth with one exception, the introduction of Errol, the father of Dionne and Phaedra. Errol is plastic, pathetic, predictable, conniving, and, as a character, surprisingly one dimensional. Arriving with his girlfriend to retrieve the girls, his methods and remarks are un-fatherly. Errol is the portrait of a snake, a tempter, a charmer, a sly beast adorning sleekly howling attire. His past isn’t hidden, not completely, which makes him even more sinister than, and just as transparent as, the beaches surrounding Barbados. Naomi Jackson made Errol colorful, but he was a backdrop, an added feature to secure the looming apparition of mental illness. With alacrity, his character meets his end in a way that many may see as an easy way out, but suitable for his nature.
There is so much lurking, a virtual cacophony of coyly placed events, like an omnipotent eye, throughout Star Side…, from remarks about darkening skin (via direct sun exposure) and trials of life, to drunkenness on darkened roads and carefully described sexual and spiritual exploration (yes, I saw these as one in the same).
I’ve read the book twice, each time getting a tall glass more than the previous read. I’ve scanned for quotes, lost myself in the mystery of grave sites, dark nights, teen spirit, and innuendos. The book was endless, even as I read these last few lines from Phaedra:
“What she wanted more than anything was to believe what Avril had taught her, was true, that she could save herself if she needed to.”
Simply put: Full Circle.
Thank you, Naomi Jackson, for a voyage that left me satiated and eager for the next beautiful jaunt!