“Off Track”: My Review of a Novel by Tamika Gibson

This novel for young adults, set in Trinidad, opens with a homely scene – immediately interrupted by a jarring, somehow banal incident of domestic violence. This takes place while seventeen-year-old Kayla is doing the washing up before her mother comes home, while keeping an eye on her two younger sisters. Life for a young woman growing up in a low-income community in the Caribbean can be unpredictable – and somehow also too predictable.

As the title suggests, the narrative is propelled by the fortunes of young amateur track and field athletes trying out for the Olympics. They are under the umbrella of a Government training programme, being groomed for higher things under the paternalistic gaze of the Prime Minister and the Sports Minister and their gruff but kind coach. “We were talented guinea pigs,” says young Joel, who grows closer to Kayla (a fellow sprinter) on a “maxi taxi” ride, where they exchange headphones and listen to each others’ music.

The ambition of the athletics track is one thread of the narrative; the other is family. Throughout, though, there is the push and pull of the young couple’s emotions, complicating matters greatly. Teens do get complicated; and Kayla is known from the start as a girl who puts up social barriers, an unapproachable girl. She prefers things that way; she doesn’t want distractions. She has a “one track” mind: to pull herself and her family out of the daily struggle of need and want. They are not dirt poor, but they are always waiting for pay day at the end of the month. A detailed description of Kayla’s kitchen, with its rusting fridge, tells the story.

“All those prayers Ma was saying? I was the answer,” says Kayla firmly. We begin to understand that she is not obsessed with running; it is a means to an end. For Joel, the path is perhaps less clear.

“Off Track” has all the ingredients for an engrossing novel for adults of any age, really – but the author gets the tone just right for teens. There is not only ambition and striving, but also self-doubt. There is excitement, joy, sheer fun, but also anger and egotism; and that kind of sudden confusion that turns everything upside down in a young person’s mind and heart, every once in a while.

Off Track by Tamika Gibson, published by Blue Banyan Books.

While Kayla’s intense focus tends to dominate – her steely gaze arrests you on the cover – Joel’s voice also resonates insistently. The narrative switches between the two of them, and the voices are distinct. They speak a similar language, sprinkled with slang; but Joel’s banter about girls with his friends is very different to Kayla’s intense conversation with a well-off girlfriend, while scrolling through Joel’s social media pages. However, the author skilfully brings Kayla and Joel to life – and brings them together – through their observations about each other and their interactions with others. And their frequent texting!

Talking of “others,” there is a strong supporting cast here. There are several older characters to get acquainted with, playing supporting roles that sometimes influence the youngsters’ fortunes. Joel lives with his vivacious, outgoing grandmother “G.” Kayla’s Aunt Jacqui, who lives next door, covers up her bruises with makeup and “makes herself believe untrue things.” Sammy scratches his large belly and drinks too much. An elderly neighbour, Sheila, appears occasionally, bringing herbal tea.

Then there are the parents – Joel’s faraway mother and his estranged father, and Kayla’s “part-time” father. Like Kayla and Joel, they are struggling with their own private demons; but blood is thicker than water.

“Could a place feel safe and stifling at the same time?” Kayla reflects at one point. There is a very clear sense of the small community in which she lives, which is so typical of many across the Caribbean. Young men hang out on the corner. Taxi drivers like “Tall Man,” fight to make a living. His appearance is described with deft strokes, his “grey, ashen heels hanging over the edges of sunken rubber slippers.” Neighbours know a great deal about each other, and will help each other if they can; but they may not be able to offer much. There is also an undercurrent of violence, which makes the older residents lock up early in the evening.

Do Kayla and Joel achieve their goals? Do they win their races? Can broken relationships be healed? Is blood really thicker than water?

Read this thoroughly delightful novel (you will find Kayla and Joel endearing) and find out the answers.

Tamika Gibson.

Tamika Gibson grew up in Trinidad and Tobago and is now living in the United States. She holds a degree in English from Morgan State University. She was first published in The Caribbean Writer with a short story entitled Christmas Eve Wedding. She is also the author of Dreams Beyond the Shore, the winner of the 2016 Burt Award for Caribbean Young Adult Literature. Off Track was published by Blue Banyan Books in November 2020. It is also available on Amazon and in Trinidad it’s available at Paper Based Bookshop, Port of Spain.

You can listen to Ms. Gibson talking about Off Track in a video interview here.

Please also read my review of A Million Aunties by Alecia McKenzie, also published recently by Blue Banyan Books, here.

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