Loving This Man
by Althea Prince
Published by Insomniac Press
214 pages, 2001
Buy it online
Reviewed by Margaret Gunning
Toronto author Althea Prince writes with such sensuality and grace that it creates a heady spell, drawing the reader into the center of the story. If only this were all a novelist needed to do, Loving This Man would have been a triumph. The fact that the novel does not come together as a satisfying read is connected to technical things like structure and voice, and even deeper underpinnings such as intent.
It is never clear exactly what Prince wanted to do with her story, so that it ends up being only a partial success in a number of areas, rather than a powerful bullseye in one. This might be a story of the political vying with the personal on the lush Caribbean island of Antigua. Then again, it could be a tale of mothers and daughters, or of women oppressed by abusive men, or on the other hand is it really all about the Black Power movement in the Toronto of the late 1960s?
There are enough focal points here for several novels, so that ultimately it lacks a true magnetic center. The result comes across more as an unedited diary or a disguised memoir than a polished piece of fiction.
But even diaries have their points of fascination. The novel opens in Antigua in the early 1960s, introducing us to the Hughes family, a matriarchy with the sensual, life-loving Mama Reevah at its core. The turning point in her life is meeting the political activist Emmanuel Hughes:
Before she met Emmanuel, Reevah had a strong feeling that if she did not love somebody soon, she would explode .... When the sweetness between them came, she was ready for it. She held on to Emmanuel and buried her face in his brown-brown-colour-of-cinnamon neck that smelled of Old Spice cologne.
All this Mama Reevah recounts to her young daughter Sayshelle while she is braiding her hair, years after Emmanuel's death from lung cancer. There is a sense that his political idealism was chronically frustrated by constant surveillance, perhaps even contributing to his early death. When he leaves the police force, his retirement gift is very telling:
He was given a stone bust of the English prime minister, who was still alive then. His name was Sir Winston Churchill. The bust had a metal cigarette in its mouth; and it was long after they had brought it home from the retirement ceremony that they realized it was a cigarette lighter and not just a statue.
Sayshelle takes it all in, with the implication that her consciousness is being raised by all these themes of insensitivity and injustice. But then the story spins off in another direction entirely. Sayshelle has two aunts, Sage and Juniper Berry, and their lives seem to follow a sort of pre-set pattern of "exploited woman" versus "liberated sister."
Sage is fatally drawn to the wrong sort of man from the very beginning. She has four daughters, all by different men, which she has farmed out to other families. In her latest relationship with the abusive Rommel, alcoholism begins to drag both of them down:
All those times when he hit her, she took the slaps that came to her at long intervals, in between picking his teeth. They came with no words and they came for no reason, but Sage knew that rum did not need a reason .... Soon, her craving for Rommel was as strong as the craving for alcohol. She could not take one without the other, although she tolerated alcohol without Rommel better than she tolerated Rommel without alcohol.
How Sage manages to drag herself and her daughters out of this emotional quicksand makes for an absorbing read, but all too soon we are onto another tack with the story of Juniper Berry, Sage's opposite. A level-headed, independent businesswoman, she confidently pursues Clifford, a sensitive male, even as he buries his first wife, Mabelay.
Prince has some interesting theories on disease and death. Here is her riff on Mabelay's demise:
She held her feelings right up inside her soul, carefully shielding them from the flame of his passion. She held all of herself away from him in that way; so that after a while, her feelings grew into one big sore spot .... And it spread, all over her womanly areas, even up to her breasts .... It was a wild kind of fire, and it turned cancerous when it could not find release into the playing field of love of life for which it was designed.
Clifford and Juniper Berry form a relationship so idyllic it seems a touch unreal. But then we are into Part II, and the story shifts again to a first-person account by Sayshelle as she begins a new life in the Toronto of the late 1960s:
Every time my aunts or Mama Reevah spoke of my emigrating to Canada, they said how good it was that I would be 'bettering' myself. They all described 'bettering' myself as going to school and getting a good job...
Sayshelle's job as a bank clerk is ordinary enough, but her fringe involvement in the Black Power movement is an eye-opener:
I felt that if you were Black in Toronto, you just could not live in a casual way. Within white society, you walked on eggshells. And if you wanted to belong in the Black community, you had to be seen doing the right things.
And with the right people. Sayshelle's marriage to the radical law student Cicero Finley turns out to be a disaster on every conceivable level, and it is as painful to read about as watching a train wreck.
Where Prince really excels is in her vivid descriptions of the loneliness and alienation of the immigrant:
Toronto moved through my life, drying and hardening into my bones. I felt crisp and petrified, like moths and mosquitos stuck on a kitchen door screen .... My life had other defining moments, but none could compare to the hollow in my heart that had been made by immigration.
What is so frustrating about this book is that, along with the generally solid writing, there are some real clangers. A deep romantic at heart, Prince can't resist throwing a good man at Sayshelle just as she is about to give up on men: "After the show, we danced and Rashaan held me as if I were a delicate flower." Sayshelle must be about as delicate as old army boots to have survived losing her father, immigration, racial prejudice and the scoundrel Cicero Finley.
There is a sense that some of these problems could have been fixed. Perhaps Prince should have made a decision to make Sayshelle the novel's magnetic center right from the beginning. That way, her Toronto memoir might not seem like such a separate entity. Or she might have woven together the stories of the family back in Antigua with Sayshelle's brave attempt to make a new life.
This is an example of a book that might have been vastly improved by a good, rigorous edit and thorough rewrite. Thus Prince's potential as a storyteller would have been allowed to fully bloom. As it is, it dies on the vine, its considerable pleasures too quickly fizzling into dissatisfaction. Prince's readers -- and the author herself -- deserve better. | February 2002
Margaret Gunning has been reviewing books for many years but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International, Capilano Review and Room of One's Own. She has written two novels, A Singing Tree and Better Than Life, and is at work on a third, Nola Mardling. She lives in Vancouver with one fat cat named Murphy and one nice husband named Bill.