The True History of Paradise

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  • Edition: Reprint
  • Format: Trade Paper
  • Copyright: 2009-07-14
  • Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks

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It is 1981. Jean Landing secretly plans to flee her beloved Jamaicathe only home her family has ever known, a place now rife with political turmoil. But before she can make her final preparations, she receives devastating news: Lana, her sister, is dead. The country's state of emergency leaves no time to arrange a proper funeral. Even Jean's mother, Monica, who hadn't spoken to Lana in more than a decade, cannot fully embrace her grief. The tragedy only underscores Jean's need to leave an island that holds no promise of a future. Her harrowing journey to freedom across a battered landscape takes Jean through a terrain of memories: of her childhood, with a detached mother at odds with an adoring father, of her complex bond with Lana, and of the friends and lovers who have shaped and shared her days. Epic in scope,The True History of Paradisepoignantly portrays the complexities of family and racial identity in a troubled Eden.

Author Biography

MARGARET CEZAIR-THOMPSON is the author of the widely acclaimed The Pirate’s Daughter, a #1 Book Sense pick, finalist for Book Sense Book of the Year, and winner of the first annual Essence literary award for fiction. Born in Jamaica, West Indies, she teaches literature and creative writing at Wellesley College in Massachusetts.


Chapter One

It's Easter, and Jamaica is in a state of emergency.

A woman looks out from her veranda. Like most verandas on the island, this one has recently been enclosed in iron grillwork, and this grillwork also covers every window of the house. It's a hot, bright afternoon without breeze. Inside, a transistor radio is playing, and now and then she hears the dogs bark at a stray goat wandering past the garden gate. She wears a faded red housedress and diamond earrings. Her eyes are light brown, an unusual color for someone of such dark complexion ("Where dis black pickney come from?" her own mother asked, examining her at birth).

She lives on Bonnieview Terrace in the suburban highlands of Kingston. To her east are the Blue Mountains, air-blue at the horizon.

But that isn't where she looks now.

Spread out before her, between the broken circle of mountains and the sea, is the capital: corrugated tin roofs, leaning shacks, high-rise hotels, flamboyants she can name from this distance by their colors, the irregular geometry of city houses and lawns, swimming pools, great bushy treetops, animal and vehicle pausing and proceeding, and the corrugated tin roofs repeating themselves all the way out to the corrugated gray water of the harbor.

Since morning she has counted six fires. They continue blazing, barely luminous on such a bright day, adding no noticeable heat to the already insufferable air.

She telephoned her mother earlier, having heard about a fire on Molynes Road not far from the family business. The moment the secretary answered Jean regretted making the call. Her mother was busy. "She talkin' long distance. Hol' awn a minute-" Her mother's assistant, Miss Wong, shouted across the room to a delivery man, something about Easter buns. "Jean, you can cawl back later?" "It's all right," Jean said, feeling pointless, realizing it was all business as usual at Island Bakery. Still, she fumbled on, saying she had heard on the radio about the fire across the road at Mr. Mahfood's shop and-

Monica Landing got on the phone:

"What happen? You 'fraid?"

Monica has never been afraid of anything and is openly contemptuous of anyone who shows fear. She considers her daughter weak-minded, like her late husband, Roy Landing.

Roy died when Jean was seven. But memories of him surface so often that he continues to live with her in a bright, episodic way. One of his paintings-one of the few he ever finished-hangs in the National Gallery, and a story of his, published posthumously, turns up now and then in anthologies.

Another fire now blazes, near the university, just a few miles away. The firemen won't come. They've been on strike since the King Street fire, when they were shot at by men with machine guns.

You 'fraid?

She unlocks the veranda grillwork and walks down the long paved driveway to the gate. The gardener, Hilston, is late. She knows what he has to go through to get here from his part of town. Roadblocks and soldiers are the least of it; there's the danger of ambush on every unguarded lane. The city has been divided into war zones marked out by graffiti. The name manley or seaga, or letters, PNP or JLP, are painted on sidewalks and walls in their respective party colors, orange and green. No graffiti means you're in No Man's Land and you take your chances.

She peers down the road, hoping to see Hilston making his way up the hill. A few days ago he told her about an incident he saw on his way to work.

"Dem chop down a man on Birdsucker Lane dis mawnin'."

"What you mean 'chop down'? They stab him?"

"No, ma'am. Chop 'im 'ead off clean-clean."

He has never been this late. He must have decided it was too dangerous to go out.

She looks at the red ginger growing in front of the veranda. It's overgrown and is

Excerpted from The True History of Paradise: A Novel by Margaret Cezair-Thompson
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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