Writing about the history of one’s own family can be tough—especially when you are met with reluctant relatives, scarce material facts, and time’s inevitable erosion of people and memories. But with a few sources and some imagination, Maryse Conde was able to conjure up the story of Victoire, her mestiza grandmother; the matriarch and the genesis of Conde’s lineage. Victorie Quidal was a mixed-race woman born in the French-Caribbean island of Marie-Galante. Her “Australian whiteness” of skin was a visual burden that brought on suspicion and mistrust from her community and lust and deceit from men. Victoire is a woman who, without the ability to read and write, gains the power of communication through her famous and delicious cooking, her devotion to music, and her friend, Anne-Marie, who took her and her daughter, Jeanne, in when Victoire had little options. Knowing where she came from, Victoire was determined to give her daughter the life and the access to education that she never had. Sacrifices were made so that the next woman wouldn’t have to suffer such. These actions were the result of a strenuous relationship between mother and daughter, both locked in their own river of emotions, unable to let flow the love both felt for the other. Through the evolution of Jeanne we witness the evolution of Guadeloupe’s new generation post the generation of emancipation. Jeanne is unable and downright unwilling to understand her mother’s servile attitude and her relationship with Anne-Marie’s husband, Boniface. Jeanne relies on education and conservative emotions. These two women, unable to find a common ground, are forever torn and lost in translation—class, language, beliefs, and generation forever keep them at a severe distance. Through this mixed-race woman’s experience in a colored-obsessed society, Conde attempts to reconstruct the foggy facts of not only Victoire’s life but the lives of those who shaped her and Conde’s family. While I believe this book had all the recipes for an intriguing read:
- Caribbean goth
Conde’s mother even had a familiar relationship with Papa Doc! Jeanne, herself, was the daughter of a fierce activist. Despite the fascinating subjects, I found this novel to fall incredibly short of what it could have been. Victorie is part biography, part history lesson, and part social critique. I found myself to be often jarred from beautiful prose into the opinions and critiques of the author, and where I wish there were more imagination and showing stood over-telling and explanation. In the midst of all that depth is still a vagueness that leaves you desperate for more; more detail, more image, more emotion Conde poses more questions to the reader than she does provide answers or at least an imagined, fictional reconstruction of events. It’s as if she is choosy when applying her imagination; bursting certain situations with it and completely avoiding others. There are wonderful metaphors that could stand without the over-explanation of them that follows. When a book is translated from its original language I’m always hesitant to say I don’t enjoy the text. I believe that there are certain things that just aren’t able to make the translation and so more stiff language is used to replace what I am sure was much more languid and beautiful. As I continue to work on my French, I hope that I can revisit Victoire and Conde’s journey through her family history in the novel’s original language.