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Volcano

Written by Robert Edison Sandiford for The Caribbean Review of Books on no date provided

The drama of Montserrat has been the eruption of Soufrière. And the story of the eruption has been that of the Caribbean: the meaning of home to its people. In July 1995, when the volcano first blew, Yvonne Weekes was the British territory’s director of culture. She had the option to return to the United Kingdom, as many did in the darker days ahead, when parts of the island became uninhabitable. She chose to stay with her young son, Nathan.

In Volcano, Weekes’s first book, Soufrière is at once hero and villain, friend and foe. “For years,” she writes, villagers in the south and east of the island “live and work her. They recognise her every bend and curve. They walk through her lush crevices and fertile gullies . . . One day they look up at her and they know something is wrong. They even know before the scientists who come to explore and examine her.” The mountain, “a sleeping giant”, appears to have woken angry.

“The mountain is my muse,” says Weekes, a performance poet, actor, and director. (She teaches theatre at Barbados Community College.) The mountain is also her confessor. She talks about desires and feelings she hardly would otherwise, giving us memoir as dramatic monologue. Weekes’s writing is therefore therapeutic, perhaps more so than literary. An unrealised strength of Volcano is the dialogue; there should have been more of her spirited Montserratian vernacular. Uncritical sentimentality, unmemorable verse, and rhetorical dead ends are other symptoms of her approach.

As the situation on the island steadily worsened for her and Nathan, writing about the experience seemed all Weekes could do to stay sane. Harsh realities about the inefficiencies of Caribbean disaster management, the persistence of old colonial ties, and how much aid the region, compared to others in need, could honestly expect risked overwhelming her.
Montserrat, when she was a child in England, was called by one of her teachers a “place that does not exist.” The Caribbean, even to those who live or visit here, still seems not altogether real. Soufrière’s first eruption leads Weekes to declare: “This then is the beginning of Time.” She means for the island as much as for herself in the world.

Notions of time, renewal (in the shape of Plymouth’s communal Evergreen Tree), and hope (suggested by “one yellow butterfly”): these are why her people stayed, even when volcanic ash poured down like rain, “like bullets on the galvanize roof”, burying their homes and crushing their lungs. There was a Montserrat before the volcano; there must be one afterwards, for her son and her friends and the Caribbean and those who don’t know the Caribbean. Weekes’s decision in August 1996 to relocate to Barbados is one of the most painful of the memoir.

But a problem with monologues is that there can be too much casual recounting. Compounding this in Volcano is an uneven present-tense narration. When the language works, Weekes conveys the particular colour and rhythm and tragedy of her story. At other moments, her voice is less sure, failing to sound the dreadful rumble of the mountain she can’t live with or without.

This is a review of Volcano

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