Here Comes The Sun

Nicole Dennis-Benn

Oneworld, £8.99

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Review by Alastair Mabbott

HERE Comes the Sun is set in a tourist resort in Jamaica’s Montego Bay, but it’s not holiday reading, unless your idea of a fun fortnight on the beach includes contemplating the systems of exploitation that make it possible.

What little income the villagers of River Bank make comes from the tourist trade. River Bank is dominated by the Palm Star Resort, where 30-year-old Margot works. Her sister Thandi, 15 years her junior, is the one on whom the family’s hopes are pinned. Margot and her mother, Delores, are determined that, come what may, she will get a good education, become a doctor and raise the family out of poverty.

Thandi is all too aware of the pressure on her to succeed, although she would rather be an artist, and she’s fallen for a local boy of low status, neither of which fits in with her upwardly mobile trajectory. Nevertheless, she exhibits the streak of self-loathing that runs through the population, secretly paying visits to a woman who daubs girls in skin-lightening creams.

It’s Margot, though, who is the standout character in this superb, insightful, debut novel. She’s leading two distinct secret lives, each eating away at her integrity. Alongside her regular duties, Margot sleeps with her boss to improve her prospects, and with some of the hotel’s wealthiest guests to supplement her salary. She also builds up a stable of girls to service the guests, and takes a cut of their earnings. Telling herself she’s doing it all for Thandi, Margot allows herself to become ever more morally compromised, to the extent of framing a rival as a lesbian with the intention of poaching her job. Ironically, it’s Margot herself who is hiding her true inclinations, sneaking after work into the home of her lover, Verdene, who is spurned and denounced as a witch by the people of River Bank for her sexuality.

The moral complexities thicken as more of the family’s backstory is revealed. The harsh view of the world that Delores has impressed on her daughters may help Thandi survive, but one suspects it’s a view heavily skewed towards justifying Delores’ own past actions. It’s one thing to show characters expressing unsentimental, hardheaded attitudes: it’s quite another to internalise them, and Dennis-Benn shows that she understands her characters and their situation on a deep level, giving Here Comes the Sun an enviable authority and an affinity with its subjects.

In an environment shaped by poverty and colonialism, and laced with self-hatred and the sexualisation of children, most choices are fated to be bad ones. But, as can be seen when Margot stands to benefit from the building of a new hotel which will destroy her village and displace its residents, this is a system that needs the complicity of its victims to work. A highly accomplished debut, Here Comes the Sun illustrates the inextricability of the personal and the political, dealing head-on with issues of race, gender and sexuality, through some complex and well-realised characters.