The Star Side of Bird Hill
by Naomi Jackson
Naomi Jackson’s debut novel, The Star Side of Bird Hill, is a tale of two sisters and a tale of two cities: Brooklynites 16-year-old Dionne and her 10-year-old sister, Phaedra, are sent to Bird Hill, Barbados, for the summer of 1989 to live with their grandmother Hyacinth. Their mother, Avril, a nurse working with AIDs patients, is struggling through a divorce and depression, and she sends the girls in the hopes of getting her life back together. In return, the girls, in addition to much-needed maternal stability, are expected discover their heritage in Bird Hill, particularly through their grandmother Hyacinth, a head-strong widow who practices obeah, similar to voodoo, Santeria, and other religions that have their roots in West African slave cultures. In the late eighties, however, Hyacinth’s sorcery has more new-age, less-sinister flavorings in the form of midwifery and prescribing herbs and roots to other inhabitants of the island.
Religion is the driving force in this small village near St. John, as well as boredom. The older Dionne, who took care of her younger sister in Brooklyn as her mother’s depression worsened, takes to the small, parochial mindset of Bird Hill like vinegar to water. Her budding defiance and innate independence run rampant in the form of boys, clothes, broken curfews, and attitude, whereas the younger Phaedra, an outcast at school in Brooklyn, shadows her grandmother Hyacinth and makes tentative friendships with the pastor’s son and an overweight, equally teased girl. Hyacinth for her part (the book omnisciently vacillates among the three narratives, often in the same chapter) gives both granddaughters liberal doses of coarseness and honesty. She doesn’t raise fools, even if, ironically and sadly, her own matter-of-factness may have helped drive her own daughter Avril to America 20 years earlier.
Jackson’s novel is also a tale of two paces: the first half of the book is a pastiche of portraits of life in Bird Hill; older Dionne’s boredom almost feels palpable to the reader in Jackson’s leisurely strokes of Bajan residents and culture. Yet it’s a pleasant stroll to us, the kind one makes in a museum after they’ve had a full lunch, a kind that feels organic and inviting. When a cataclysmic event occurs in the middle of the novel that changes the girls’ life forever (and includes the arrival of Dionne and Phaedra’s deadbeat father, who wants to bring them back to America to live with him and his new wife), pages move fast, secrets are revealed, choices must be made, and girls become women.
Jackson is a gifted writer who writes well beyond her years. Her style, although mostly impressionistic, often veers into a late-period Matisse precision with her simply wrought observations that have enormous sharpness, like a knife cleaving through butter. It’s a style that renders itself unclassifiable in some ways: I wasn’t sure, at first, whether to approach the book from a YA perspective or a literary one. Although its hybrid style makes it gentler than, say, Maryse Conde’s classic 70s Caribbean coming-of-age novel, Heremakhonon, Bird Hill lacks some of its almost-violent shock of cultures, the allure of the exotic, and emotional depth. For instance, Hyacinth’s work in obeah hints at a richness that feels unexplored, and sometimes Jackson does not dwell long enough in the deep tragedy that befalls Dionne, Phaedra, and Hyacinth at the aforementioned midpoint of the novel, at least in their hearts and minds. We do see, however, how it takes a village to raise a child, and Bird Hill comes up in spades.
These notes feel rather small, though. Only a few novels every year really excite me, and Naomi Jackson’s The Star Side of Bird Hill made me a born-again believer in the transformative power of literature. Jackson is able to conjure that elusive magic, in a gorgeous setting with layered characters, that makes books feel, as they should, like a kind of delicious sorcery.
Naomi Jackson reads at the Central Branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library (400 Cathedral Street, Baltimore) on Tuesday, January 12th, 6:30 pm as part of Writers LIVE. For more information: http://calendar.prattlibrary.org/event/writers_live_naomi_jackson_the_star_side_of_bird_hill#.VovJCTHF-M0