How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones is set in the mid-1980s in the fictional Baxter’s Beach, Barbados, where luxury holiday villas skirt the paradisiacal beach and intrude on the local community that is afflicted by poverty and violence. The novel follows mainly Lala, a grieving local who suffers brutal abuse at her husband Adan’s hands; and Mira Whalen, whose husband has been murdered by Adan in their villa during a robbery gone wrong. We learn about their backgrounds and families: Lala comes from a line of women who believe they are cursed to attract evil men, and Mira, wanting “the best in life, and a bounty of it”, marries a wealthy tourist, initially to escape poverty and prostitution. There is also a memorable cast of supporting characters and some even get their own chapters.
The violence and tragedies in this novel bring forth the themes of guilt and punishment. The women in particular nurse guilt from interpreting their misfortunes as punishments administered by a god or undetermined forces. Lala’s ‘sin’ is marrying the wrong man, and Mira’s, wanting more than “enough”, which her mother insists is all a person should want out of life. Some men, namely Tone, a gigolo with a complex past, wrestle with guilt less openly. But for the most part the men in the book are pretty bad, and though they don’t come out of the story unscathed they do so much damage along the way that any ‘punishment’ that comes their way is insufficient (which is one of the reasons the world Jones constructed feels so real). Lala interprets the lack of punishment for her husband as perhaps a sign that he can’t be that bad – she marvels at him never being hurt while climbing trees with his cutlass to get coconuts for themselves or to sell: “You could assume that a man is not really a bad man… when even nature never sees fit to punish him.”
Beyond this, the central character or overarching presence in the novel is the setting. Jones paints a beautiful picture of Baxter’s Beach, with its gorgeous colours, laid-back atmosphere and activities like early-morning swims and jet-skiing. Then we are immediately brought back to the reality of so many of the locals, who are relegated to the periphery of paradise. We see a teenager literally with his “neck over the edge of a gutter”; a local’s car “with a sheet of sheer plastic bag for a back windshield… in a manner that suggests a situation of relative permanence”; Lala’s home with a Pepsi sign stolen from a shop for a door. Unsurprisingly, some locals are shocked by what they view as extravagant displays of wealth and wastefulness. Watching a visitor at one of the villas eat an orange Lala notes that he “does not treat oranges like a luxury costing too many dollars per bag… he eats them like they are made to be devoured, without thought to where the next orange is coming from.” Even Adan uses their perceived extravagance to justify his robbings. His and Lala’s home is partly furnished with things discarded by the villas’ owners: a chair, a sink, and he posits that “anybody who would throw away things like that deserved to get things taken.”
Outsiders buy all they could want from locals: hair-braiding, housekeeping, childcare, the local cuisine, drugs, sex, entertainment. They are not necessarily ‘bad’ for that but it’s impossible to ignore that these transactions become exploitative when we look at the extreme imbalance in wealth distribution. The authorities are not blameless either: the murder of a wealthy, white English man makes the news daily and commands the best efforts of the police, while the death of a local is left for the incompetent, misogynistic Sergeant Beckles to investigate.
Though this shouldn’t necessarily matter, I’m amazed that this is Cherie Jones’s debut novel – she is masterful at pacing, plot, character, voice, and her sentences are precise and full of detail. Jones is a talented writer; this is a very emotional story but there isn’t a lot of navel-gazing from the characters or philosophising from the omniscient narrator, which makes it all the more powerful. There is a mystery to the characters, and Jones is able to make even the shortest appearances memorable and eloquent: every small episode tells countless stories because the precise is made universal.
I have seen a lot written about how violent this novel is and, yes, it does depict violence, sexual and otherwise, sometimes in detail. Yes, it can be ‘hard to read’ but it’s never gratuitous and is often accompanied by the mental state of the attacked or attacker, which allows us to really understand how each violent act came to be and the impact that it has. This novel is not necessarily for escapism or an uplifting read. What it is is incredibly engrossing, vivid and just plain good. It’s full of compassion, and shows a side of life that may be unknown to and uncomfortable for, let’s face it, many middle-class readers to acknowledge. But ignorance is not bliss. The story is set in Barbados but there’s social inequality everywhere in the world (hello, Shuggie Bain, last year’s Booker Prize winner set in Glasgow). I hope this wins the Women’s Prize this year so that it reaches an even wider audience. Despite its complexities, How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps her House reads so smoothly it feels like you are not even reading. It has one of the best book titles I have ever seen, so pick up a copy and find out what that is all about.