Award-winning Jamaican writer and environmental advocate Diana McCaulay has just completed her fifth novel. An earlier version of the novel won third place in the CODE Burt Award for Caribbean Young Adult Literature in 2019. Peepal Tree Press will publish this, the first Jamaican climate change novel, on September 24. It is available for pre-order now – hopefully in local bookstores and also from Amazon.com on Kindle and in paperback.
In an online discussion with Bocas Lit Fest on August 16 (you can watch the recording here) the author suggested that scientists had not communicated the issue of climate change well, so “I thought I would tell a story.” This story is very specifically a story of place, very much grounded in the Caribbean. “It is the islands we love, that are under threat,” said the author. The main protagonist of the story, Sorrel, is always seeking that Homeplace.
“I hope it’s a wake up call – a warning,” added McCaulay. Well, here is my review. Go out and grab a copy!
A friend in California tweeted a photograph a few days ago. The sun burned through a curtain of smoke. It looked almost hollow, sickly pale, fringed with bright orange. Below and all around, we could imagine the fires burning up the land.
This was not the friendly, blue-sky sun that tourists welcome, as they soak up its comforting rays on Caribbean beaches. Record heat throughout the year in California (Los Angeles County reached 121 degrees a few days ago, its highest ever recorded temperature) has fueled its raging fires. A young hiker in the mountains died of heat-related seizures.
The innocent folk song (The Banana Boat Song) with the line “Daylight Come” takes on a sinister meaning in this novel, which has the tagline “How do you live, when daylight kills?” Like every other resident of Bana City on the island of Bajacu in 2084, the teenage Sorrel and her mother Bibi sleep in the day, hiding from the “dangerous light.” They are anxious, hungry, isolated, shutting down, shutting out the sun.
In the early part of the novel, the careful details of how humans had tried to cope with the insidious onset of climate change help us to understand how Sorrel and Bibi had reached this level of existence – not really living, just existing. The writer explains how the houses were redesigned after a year of violent hurricanes, with drainage and water storage and succulents growing on the roof. A bucket of water with a cloth in it helped the women keep cool during the day by wiping their faces regularly. There was nothing much left in the sea, except for the occasional sea egg – a delicacy the women enjoyed.
The reader soon discovers that it is not just the physical aspects of their lives that are impacted by the dangerous sun. The story quickly reveals the devastating effect that the onset of the climate crisis has had on the society, and on the human psyche. While Sorrel still has access to the unreliable remnants of the Internet, she dismisses historic websites – accounts of piped water, airplanes, films, concerts – as “no more than a collection of myths to distract them from the present.” The present, like the pitiless sun, is cruel and uncompromising. Like most residents of Bana City, the women live in a state of quiet trauma and anxiety, not knowing what the future might consist of; this emptiness is a little like what some are experiencing under the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Dawn used to be hopeful,” reflects Bibi. Now it is to be feared. We look back, through her eyes, at the combination of the extreme “rain bomb” events causing massive flooding, the searing droughts, the violent storms – all merged into what was rather euphemistically called “The Convergence.” Then, everything came together, to a point of collapse. At forty-five years old, Bibi has lived through this; she is ready to accept whatever hardships the future brings. She is weak, aging before her time – and whether she likes it or not, dependent on her daughter for survival.
And her daughter wants out. She is young, and is prepared to take risks. As the story begins, she is already at a point of decision, and her mother has no choice but to follow. They must take their chances, and leave the city. Unlike Bibi, Sorrel lives firmly in the present. She makes sure her mother comes with her, as well as her electronic device. There is hope in technology.
The novel has many of the elements of a great adventure: a journey into unknown territory; chance encounters, good and bad; loss, and confusion. Sorrel and Bibi are the quintessential climate refugees, but they are doing it in their own way. They are not among the frightened hordes fleeing Bana City, trying to find somewhere livable.
With the inexorable progress of climate change, the structure of society, politics and class has changed on the island. The Domins are what remains of a government: an authoritarian, secretive, oppressive group that rules the urban areas and recruits young men for “violence training.” The Toplanders – the wealthier class – have escaped to the highest hills, where they exploit both land and other humans. Sorrel has heard of, but never seen, the Tribals, who fled to the hills for a better life, closer to Nature; the use of Taino words and names suggests that their way of life is closer to that of indigenous people, who lived in a less harmful way. Will Sorrel and Bibi find the Tribals, and what dangers will they encounter along the way? Flesh-eating “ferals,” perhaps.
I have not described this as a dystopian novel, because it is something beyond that. This is not a strange world. This fearful future is familiar, but distorted. Those who know Kingston (Bana City) will recognize the residential community of Mona, its streets poignantly named after flowers in happier days, now ravaged; and, as the two set out on their journey into the foothills, the community of Papine, ruined and degraded. The heavily guarded army camp in the mountains, Cibao, where much drama unfolds, reminds one of Newcastle. It is not a newly created world; it is a possible world to come.
A particularly moving aspect of the book is the relationship between mother and daughter. In 2084, the older generation (that is, anyone over forty) is extremely vulnerable. Considered expendable, they are disliked, resented and ostracized, often victims of violence. The older people brought the world to this state through their wasteful, greedy ways, knowing what would happen, say the younger characters in the book. Nevertheless, Sorrel protects her mother, and begins to realize, rather sadly, that when their situation improved (and you will be relieved to know that it does!) “we started wanting, gathering, and keeping more” – just like the older generation did. Meanwhile, Sorrel and Bibi begin to understand each other.
The novel has elements that young (and older) adults will enjoy; a hint of romantic attraction at a waterfall, for example. There are touches of horror, too, which teenage readers do love. This is not, generally, a sweet and pretty world. Who will survive? What of sex, love, family? These are thoughts and conversations Sorrel, as a fourteen-year-old, must inevitably have.
The word “resilience” is popular nowadays, as the unmistakable evidence of climate change weighs on us. There are the California wildfires. There are the unprecedented floods in Indonesia and Nigeria, in Assam and Sudan. There are no less than five named storms in the Atlantic basin with friendly names: Paulette, Rene, Sally, Teddy and Vicky.
“Daylight Come” is a gripping story of survival. That rather over-used word “resilience” means not only struggling, adapting, defending. It also means overcoming. It also means strength. It also means hope. As Sorrel looks down on the ravaged coastline from the hills, she observes, “But still, the mountains stood.”