Frying Plantain

Zalika Reid-Benta

Published by Dialogue Books 13 August 2020

272pp, hardback, £14.99

Reviewed by Alison Burns

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Twelve chapters, each a self-contained snapshot, tell the story of a young girl growing up in Toronto.  Canadian Jamaican Kara Davis is 10 at the start, 19 at the end, and by then we want at least the same again: the book calls for a sequel.

According to her grandmother, 10-year-old Kara has always made up stories.  One school term, she goes a bit too far, claiming to have slaughtered a pig enthusiastically while visiting her cousins in Jamaica.  She gets into big trouble, not least with her feisty academic single mother, Eloise, who has ambitions for Kara.

Eloise has rules.  One day, when Kara and her friends are let out of school because of bad weather, Kara disobeys the rule that says she has to wait at school for further instructions if there’s an emergency.  Inevitably, she gets into trouble again, when her friends play a nasty trick on her and sex rears its ugly head.

By this time, Kara is shaping up to be a most appealing character:  strong, observant, conflicted, lonely.  Her mother and grandmother (‘Nana’) don’t get on, partly perhaps because Eloise herself got pregnant at 17 – a fate Eloise is determined to spare her daughter.  Nana spends her time when she’s not at church obsessively cooking and vacuuming; when her obstinate husband (Kara’s grandfather) turns up, she ignores him and refuses to feed him.  Everybody else shouts and screams, while food is forced upon them.  Kara and her mum move house incessantly, setting up makeshift homes wherever they can, and when they can’t, returning to a stormy co-existence with Nana.

It is a miracle that Kara stays at school and survives.  In one chapter – brilliantly describing an awkward session in the school’s ‘sharing circle’ – she manages to face down one of her enemies.  In another, ‘Inspection’, the reader feels her pain when, at 14,  she’s trying to choose clothes that won’t enrage or offend anyone (especially her mother and grandmother), or put her at the mercy of lustful men;  and when she gets her first love bite, that presents a real problem.  Another brilliant chapter shows Kara’s estranged grandparents attempting to live under the same roof in ‘parallel universes’ while driving each other crazy.  When she’s 18, Kara gets paralytically drunk and disgraces herself.  She has a row with her mother and leaves home, but only briefly.  Somehow, she hangs in there and, we assume, proceeds to college.

There is a crackling intelligence here, combined with warm, humane observation. Toronto’s ‘Little Jamaica’ feels very real and immediate. Above all, we want to know how this young woman’s life develops once she gets out from under.  A very strong debut.

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