How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones: A review

 

The title comes from a fable that grandmother Wilma told her orphaned granddaughter Lala who she was raising in 1984 as a warning to steer clear of trouble. It involved twin sisters, one good and one "good for nothing." The bad one had gone into a tunnel that she had been warned to stay out of because ghosts of bad men dwelled there and in it, she lost an arm. The good one pulled her out but they couldn't find her lost arm. It was a cautionary tale for Lala, but she was a teenager and of course, she didn't listen. She headed straight for trouble herself. His name was Adan. 

Adan was tall and handsome and Lala was completely infatuated with him. She started sneaking out of the house at night to meet him and soon the inevitable happened; she got pregnant. Adan wanted her to get rid of it, but Lala really wanted a baby and she managed to convince Adan that it would be a good thing to have the baby and raise it together. He agreed to have her move in with him so she packed all of her belongings in a string bag meant for groceries and went to his house. Her grandmother recognized Adan for what he was and she washed her hands of Lala. She no longer wanted to see her granddaughter.

Adan even had a wedding ring made from a piece of gold he had stolen and he and Lala got married. Within a week after the ceremony, the beatings began. In spite of her being pregnant with his child, the abuse continued on a regular basis. 

Although the island where they live in Barbados was called Paradise, there was nothing paradisical about it for many of the women who lived there. They lived in a brutal patriarchy where men were free to do anything they wanted to them. Men were not expected to control themselves. Indeed, as Wilma once told Lala, they cannot control themselves. Sexual abuse had traveled through the generations of their family. Wilma had suffered it; her daughter, Lala's mother, had suffered it and Wilma had worked very hard to keep her husband away from Lala to prevent her suffering it. This, however, made for a cold family environment for the child. Perhaps it was not surprising that Lala wanted to get out of it and create her own family.

Adan's and Lala's volatile and chaotic marriage turns fatal when Lala goes into labor while Adan is away from the house engaged in breaking and entering and armed robbery. Lala goes looking for him and finds him at a big house on the beach. The house belongs to White English tourists Peter and Mira Whalen. Actually, it did belong to Peter but now he is dead, having just been shot by Adan. We see this incident through the eyes of Mrs. Whalen, Mira. Hers becomes one of the voices that relate the story.  The other voices are Lala's and Adan's gigolo friend, Tone.

Tone is an interesting character. He was actually Lala's friend before he was Adan's. He and Lala were teenage lovers but then he got into a fight and nearly killed someone and he was sent away to juvenile detention. His mother refused to tell Lala where he had gone. It was during this time that she met Adan. When Tone returned, he found Lala and Adan already married and Lala pregnant but he continued to have feelings for her. 

Using alternating perspectives to tell the story and switching back and forth between the present and the backstory as the author does requires finesse but Jones possesses it in quantities. This is her debut novel and she handles all the graphic violence and ugliness of the story very capably and slowly builds the tension toward a surprising and rather satisfying conclusion. Her characters are all flawed human beings but she gives them to us with their humanity intact. Is there justice for any of these people and what exactly would that justice look like? Their home may be an island paradise for the tourists that come there but for the locals, it is a reality and a trauma that they struggle to find a way to escape.

This was a difficult book to read because of the constant brutality suffered by Lala and other women characters, but Cherie Jones presents it all masterfully. I found it hard to put down.

And how does the one-armed sister sweep her house? The answer is she finds a way. Nature always finds a way.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars  

Comments

  1. this sounds like a painful read... something rotten in the state of Denmark when books intended to point out deficiencies in human nature are too difficult for those they are meant to influence: meaning that life is horror incarnate, and we shouldn't have anything to do with it? well, no... some sort of logical inconsistency there... or maybe it's just me, haha...

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    1. It was painful but realistic. Fortunately, the ending was at least somewhat redemptive and I was quite glad of that.

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  2. I particularly like the setting of this one and the way the story is constructed in a way that it's seen through different eyes and uses flashbacks. I've found that I enjoy novels built more like this one than if they are told in a more straightforward way. Sounds a bit glum, but keeping it realistic is definitely the way to go with something like this, I think. I need to take a look at this one for sure.

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    1. It's well-written, Sam, and I think you might enjoy it. Although "enjoy" might not be quite the right word. (Incidentally, I'm currently reading and enjoying the first in the Ragnar Jonasson series featuring Hulda unpronounceable that you recommended.)

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    2. I can't wait to hear what you think of this one after you turn that last page, Dorothy. I was totally surprised.

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  3. I find books like this that center around brutal men and their abuse of women really hard to read. They always make me so angry, you know?

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    1. I do indeed know. In fact I was furious during much of my reading of this one.

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