England and Jamaica, 1837 to 1840. There are three narrators: the young poet Elizabeth Barrett, before she married Robert Browning, and two former female slaves on the Jamaican sugar plantations, owned by the wealthy Barrett family – Sheba and Kaydia. Elizabeth’s story is told through her diary and correspondence and covers a period when she is prostrate with a typically Victorian illness and is attempting to recover her health in Torquay. Both Sheba and Kaydia tells their tales in an opaque Jamaican patois stream-of-consciousness which is challenging to read and understand. The Jamaican stories are of continuing brutality and harshness, with both women forced to have sexual relations and bear the children of the predatory white masters including Elizabeth’s much-loved brother Sam. Elizabeth, meanwhile, wallows in her frustration, missing her father and brothers. It is only towards the end of the novel, when rumours of elements of her family’s misconduct reach her does she begin to comprehend how their immense wealth and her comfortable standard of living have been founded upon the exploitation of human misery.
The novel demands an attentive reader, but I am not sure it works. The three strands are rather too isolated. And with about half the novel written in patois, it is rather cryptic and slow going (and I am a frequent visitor to Jamaica and have some awareness of the dialect). The author also seems to occasionally forget that her narrator is speaking patois and there are frequent phrases of elegant description of the natural beauty of Jamaica in conventional English which I cannot see either Sheba or Kaydia articulating.