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Stories from Yard

Written by Andrea Downer for Jamaica Gleaner on no date provided

Uncle Chet was a stubborn old man, and even though he died from a broken back many months after he fell from a tree in his backyard, it might well have been his stubbornness that killed him. 
How Uncle Chet ended up in the breadfruit tree is another matter. He was convinced that the trees he had planted in his backyard from seeds had all conspired to spite him. 

According to his niece-in-law Vera, ""His curiosity about what would come from a particular seed overwhelmed his common sense, even though the ground around our house seemed determined to spite him."" 

But Vera ominously predicted, ""... a bad seed can cause hell."" 

This is the first story in a collection of short stories by Jamaican-born writer, Alecia McKenzie, titled Stories from Yard. 

LIFE THAT READERS RECOGNISE 

Stories from Yard provide real slices of Jamaica life and experiences that readers can sink their teeth into. The issues that are tackled are Jamaican and the characters in the stories are credible. They pulse with the kind of life that make readers recognise and identify with them. The madman in the short story, 'Terminus', is nauseatingly familiar. Carla, who steals her best friend's boyfriend, has believable human traits and is the girl you love to hate. The angry mob that kills two boys who try to rob Miss Ramsay as she came home late one night ""after locking up the curry-goat and stews peas restaurant she had near Cross Roads,"" exists in every Jamaican community. Their outrage is evident when they defiantly declare to the police, ""You not leaving here with those damn thieves."" 

As the deadly tableau unfolded, the little girl who narrated that story, titled 'Tiefs', explained, ""The people of the neighbourhood surrounded the car. Soon, everyone was shouting. They pushed the police aside and dragged the thieves from the car ... Our neighbours' faces were unrecognisable as they got caught up in the frenzy, excited by the taste of revenge."" 

Each short story, on its own, is a masterpiece, a creative piece of work artfully woven to tell the stories of the characters, exposing their vulnerabilities and chronicling their struggles and pain. 
However, thrown together in a collection, sometimes it is hard to tell where one story stops and the other starts. Some of the stories do not make enough of an impact as individual pieces. 
The author's tendency to begin some stories without identifying the characters early in the piece contributes to this confusion. This tendency sometimes affects readers' transition from one short story to another. The confusion is sometimes only allayed when the reader stumbles upon some stray identifying characteristics. An example of this occurs in 'Diaspora Dance', which begins with a character whose gender has not been established, talking about meeting a Trinidadian girl in a church in New York. 

In every story before this one, the lead character that narrates is female. Imagine the reader's surprise when on page three of the nine-page story, the lead character's gender is finally revealed as male! 

""It was on my 20th birthday that she told me to leave. ""You're a big man now,"" she said, ""time to be on your own."" 

In glancing back through the two first pages before this, it is then that you realise that the lead character wore ""long dreadlocks"" and had been smoking a ganja spliff. 

However, those two indicators are not enough for the reader to determine that the character is male, because some women also grow locks and smoke ganja spliffs. It is possible that the author's failure to reveal the identity of the lead character earlier in the story could be an indication that she buys into stereotypes or takes it for granted that her readers know what she is thinking or what she means. 

DEVELOPING THE STORIES 

Stories from Yard is McKenzie's third publication and comprises 11 short stories, seven of which are set in Jamaica. The other four follow the characters on abbreviated journeys in foreign countries, from the all too familiar struggles to exist in New York city, to the experiences of a servant girl in Belgium. And finally, the heartbreak and then the triumph of a middle-aged Jamaican female cabaret singer, who reclaims her youthfulness on the sands of a beach in Brazil in the arms of her young, sculpted lover who is four years younger than her 20 year-old son. That story has a theme reminiscent of How Stella Got Her Groove Back. 

To McKenzie's credit, some of the stories, such as 'Terminus' and 'Planes in the Distance', peter out gracefully and come to satisfying conclusions, thus earning their classification as short stories. 
However, others beg to be finished. The characters seem to have been silenced in mid-sentence, stopped in mid-crisis.' When Sour Like Guinep' concludes with Carla and Vera on the phone listening to the silence, the reader is forced to move on to the next story -- 'Last Rites' -- still wondering if Vera ever forgive Carla for stealing her cross-eyed boyfriend and if their damaged friendship will ever be repaired. 'Private School' ends with little Denise still grappling with her fear of the giant roaches in Miss Maude's pit latrine. 

'Diaspora Dance' cruises to a dissatisfying stop with winter approaching and Milverton, the dreadlocked spliff smoker from Jamaica, still living on the sidewalk in front of Lee's apartment, wondering when she is going to invite him in to live with her. All those stories seemed to have been unceremoniously chopped off at the knees. 

TALENTED WRITER 

However, the fervent wish for some of Ms. McKenzie's short stories to be developed into full-length stories might actually be confirmation of the undeniable fact that she is a talented writer with the ability to capture her readers' attention and engage their imagination. Her characters are memorable and her stories explore a number of social issues and life experiences that are sometimes heartbreakingly familiar, experiences that teach life lessons -- inescapable aspects of real life.

This is a review of Stories from Yard

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