300pp, paperback, £12.99
Reviewed by Paul Sidey
According to the author, this first novel started life as a short story. ‘I re-read some ten-year-old atmospheric notes about a swamp I grew up in and thought I would give magical realism a try…’
Watson-Grant works in advertising in Jamaica, but has family in Louisiana and the southern USA, so he is familiar with the territory he is writing about, although he sets the book back in the 80s when his young hero and narrator ‘Skid’ Beaumont is nine years old.
After a night on the booze, Skid’s white father decided to relocate the family in a ‘little piece of purgatory’, in the naïve belief that a 70s oil boom would encourage expansion and development out of New Orleans. But the dream fizzles out. Pops’ repair business falls into disrepair, and the marriage disintegrates.
It is hard not to compare this novel with Benh Zeitlin’s recent debut feature film Beasts of the Southern Wild, where a little black girl called Hushpuppy is marooned with her sick and alcoholic father in the desperately poor bayous of Louisiana at the time of the havoc caused by Hurricane Katrina. The movie has a free-wheeling emotional intensity which manages to absorb the surreal into the basic narrative. Fantastic, imaginary, prehistoric creatures called Aurochs are freed from the icecaps, and, perhaps rather sentimentally, arrive in post- apocalyptic Louisiana to kneel before the orphaned Hushpuppy…
In Watson-Grant’s vivaciously written novel, Skid’s mother has magic powers, and his older brother Frico possibly has the gift of being able to draw what he wants into being. But nothing can really change bad luck. However, the book exudes optimism and good faith, for all the betrayals and disasters that befall the family.
It is all about the narrator’s voice, as with Zeitlin’s film. Both plots are fairly leaky. But energy, atmosphere, idiosyncratic characters, and richly-charged language combine to show us that Roland Watson-Grant is a writer to watch.