Caribbean Bookshelf (March/April 2016)

Written by Shivanee Ramlochan for Caribbean Beat on Tuesday, March 1st, 2016

Within an island, no matter how small, many other worlds are contained. Sharon Millar’s skill in her debut collection of short fiction, The Whale House, is to bring so many of those slumbering enclaves of particularly Trinidadian island living to the surface of her writing. Millar’s 2013 Commonwealth Short Story Prize-winning piece, “The Whale House”, is where the collection takes its name. It is a maritime elegy, a matrilineal exploration of loss and the secrets women keep from their partners, their families, ultimately even themselves, for the sake of preserving a salt-drenched, disturbing sense of peace.

In “Brian and Miss Zanana”, a furtive herpetologist considers the precarious counterpoise he tries to keep between man and beast: “I’ve always kept the venomous snakes separated from the others. I’ve been so careful, I’ve tried so hard to keep the balance between humans and the snakes, never taking chances.” The narrator’s thorny conflict is a microcosm of the book’s chief concern: Millar’s stories straddle the median line between wilderness and metropolis, asking of the reader that she find a toehold in either world. In the final offering of the book, the narrator warns herself, “The forest has no time for town shenanigans like flashy planes or making the village my own exotic backdrop. The forest has an instinct for this type of behaviour, even if you hide it from yourself.”

The Whale House takes no prisoners in its oceanic wake: everyone’s life, from mournful housewives to gun-strapped gangsters, is peered into; everyone’s confidences are capsised into the author’s confessional bowl. Millar unites the whole with a dazzling attention to language’s depths, suffusing her character descriptions and place evocations with a sensuous, restrained prose that feeds full-fathoms from the wild majesty of verdant ecosystems.

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