‘Those days are long gone, alas, since Guadeloupe, that cruel stepmother, no longer nurtures her children, and so many of them are forced to freeze to death in the Paris suburbs’.
Set in the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, Maryse Condé’s homeland, Crossing the Mangrove cleverly evokes the often suspicious and insular society of island life. Taking on a persona all of its own, Rivière au Sel is a dark and menacing backdrop to the mysterious tale that unravels in the deepest, darkest depths of nature.
Just as unforgiving as the natural landscape, the inhabitants of Rivière au Sel gather together to mourn the death of the enigmatic and elusive Francis Sancher. As an outsider, Sancher was treated with suspicion and contempt by most of the inhabitants and instead of mourning his loss, the majority come in the hope of witnessing a fight or to gossip and drink. During his wake, which draws out long into the night, the narrative revolves around many of the characters’ perspectives and brief impressions of Sancher during the short time he spent on the island. As each chapter takes on a different character, Maryse does a good job of creating the distinctive voices of each resident, switching interchangeably from first to third person. In the space of short chapters she is able to convincingly and touchingly reveal to us the hope, love, loss and despair each character has experienced in their lives.
‘Now Francis Sancher is dead. But he alone has come to an end. The rest of us are alive and continue to live as we’ve always done. Without getting along together. Without liking ourselves. Without sharing anything. The night is waging war and grappling with the shutters. Soon, however, it will have to surrender to the day and every rooster from every henhouse will crow its defeat. The banana trees, the cabins and the slopes of the mountain will gradually float to the surface of the shadows and prepare to confront the dazzling light of day’.
However, these impressions are often very fleeting and we never truly get to the bottom of the mystery surrounding Sancher. Although I was sucked into the histories of the inhabitants, which were far more interesting and nuanced than the main plot, when I got to the end of Crossing the Mangrove I felt a bit cheated. Although the basic facts of Sancher’s arrival on the island are clearly explained – he was trying to root out the curse that had been placed on his family for generations, causing the men to die when they turn 50 – we never get to hear his point of view. Although this may have been the point of the novel, adding to the mystery, I would have far preferred it if Condé had picked one of the other inhabitants to write a story about. The characters of Mira and Vilma, for instance, two young women who were enamoured by Sancher and had extramarital relations with him, or Timothée, the aged school teacher who never found love, would have been much more interesting stories in their own right.
I don’t doubt that Maryse Condé is a very talented writer, she can beautifully weave together the tales of numerous characters and create a very atmospheric and volatile backdrop through the natural landscape. She also makes interesting observations about race and the relationship between Guadeloupe and its coloniser, the French, gender and sexuality. However, Crossing the Mangrove as a whole fell a bit short of my expectations. I closed the book feeling slightly frustrated that I hadn’t learnt anything new or revelatory about the protagonist, Francis Sancher, and by the fact that there didn’t seem to be any kind of climax to the plot. That being said, I haven’t been put off reading any more of Condé’s writing. She has an intriguing-sounding novel about the Salem witch trials – ‘I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem’ – that I would like to get a copy of in the near future.
‘[…] happiness is never but a lull in the infinite ocean of unhappiness’.