Ripe and spicy
With a name like Oonya Kempadoo, a writer must have a head start in turning out a lush, moist, exotic confection of a novel. Buxton Spice fulfils the promise of its author's sapid moniker (she sounds like some flavoursome rainforest fruit); what it lacks in plot (there is none, really) it more than makes up for in sheer tropical poetry.
Kempadoo takes the standard coming-of-age theme and stamps it with her unique prose. She tells her tale of a girl becoming a woman in steamy, restless 1970s Guyana in a rich, rolling patois that oozes eroticism.
The book takes its name from the slightly sinister mango tree that dominates the backyard of narrator Lula's ramshackle home in the fictitious town of Tamarind Grove.
Lula's nascent sexuality is beginning to ripen; she longs to be plucked like a juicy mango by Iggy, who felt her up once in a deserted classroom. She admires 'Iggy's spriggy-hair hefty man-self. He had an ease with it. Some other boys did, too. Not like the hard black-black Rastas silhouetted in the streetlight . . . they held their man-self tighter inside them, coiled, ready to spring.' Lula's fleshly awakenings are the glue that bind the book together; descriptions of the dastardly deeds of Forbes Burnham, the autocrat who runs the island, and of the simmering racial strife, hover in the background.
As her body blooms, she sees sex at every turn - the nocturnal goings-on of the local prostitutes, the violent arguments of a couple that end in bellowing bonking, the gang-rape of Sexy Marilyn, a masturbatory display by feeble-minded Uncle Joe, observations on the 'lolos' of donkeys and pigs.
No topic is taboo, yet Kempadoo manages to strike just the right tone, avoiding prurience or alienating her audience. This she achieves by delving into her memory and coming up with the convincingly honest reminisces of a very precocious 12-year-old. Such as her fumblings with friends during a game of 'husbands and wives' during afternoon rests, which would certainly give pause to the Energiser Bunny: 'There was a sound of movement from the other bed and I quickly stuck my head out from under the sheet. Judy was on top of Sammy already! We hadn't even kissed yet. I pulled my head back in, rolling on to Rachel, and wriggled up slightly until my bunge was in the right place and the battery was held between our two bones. We kissed now, hurrying, just pushing our lips together and keeping them there for a second.' Eventually, rape and murder come calling as political tensions flare. Lula's mixed parentage - East Indian father and creole mother - is not conducive to a long and healthy life, so the family plots an escape to England. The Buxton Spice tree remains, unmoved, implacable. It is her tree of knowledge, her keeper of secrets.
Buxton Spice by Oonya Kempadoo Dutton $170