Molly Galloway, the sleek heroine and narrator of this debut novel by the widely recognized editor and co-founder of Sister Vernon Press, is a horticulturist, living in Toronto, having arrived from Jamaica in 1971. Makeda Silvera's elegiac story about the disruption of emigrant families and the durability of childhood memories is sure to garner her attention as a writer first and foremost.
Molly, father unknown, born to 15-year-old Glory, begins her narrative by recounting the reading of her grandmother's (Mama's) will. The bulk of the family have returned to their ancestral homeland only to find they have been disinherited, the estate bequeathed to Vittorio the ne'er-do well Canadian-born grandson. To say that the story that follows is about dysfunction in families Jamaican style is an understatement. Mama's son Mikey states, "Mama is a wicked revengeful Šoman. How she could do dis? Wherever she gone, she won't find peace." Molly takes up the challenge of understanding her grandmother's ways, hoping that by remembering and piecing together the fragments of her family's past, redemption, resolution and peace will follow. Molly's love for mama is deep. She remembers learning to swim: "I was afraid of the waves carrying me back out with them. You held me, steadied me so I could float till I wasn't afraid anymore."
Unlike Dionne Brand, who writes about the plight of West Indians mainly from a historical perspective, with a view to assigning blame, Silvera concentrates on assessing familiar familial patterns¨children having children, unknown and uncaring fathers, mothers abandoning children¨and the negative social and cultural impact of these patterns on successive generations. She carves her own niche. Although Rachel Manley wrote about family in her saga, we caught a glimpse of upper-class life in Jamaica. Silvera may pose similar questions about love and honour, but here we encounter the middle class masses, and depending on the day their glass is both half-full and empty.
Mama, a single mother to her own four children, in time becomes responsible for her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, including Molly's daughter Ciboney. As a portrait of Jamaican culture, the author's scathing analysis of the lost generations¨the children who are brought up by someone other than their biological parents¨gives shape to the various ills that this form of child-rearing can effect. For example, single mothers emigrate to the west to work and send money home, while the children left to their own devices, grow to repeat the mistakes of their parents.
Mama's ferocious, protective pride in her granddaughter yields transparently heartbreaking and tender moments. Silvera lovingly portrays the matriarch who endures the cards dealt to her. The strength and courage that she displays throughout her life moulds her granddaughter's character. In the prime of her life Mama valiantly tries to hold home and hearth together. Despite numerous reasons for strife and unhappiness¨the growing frequency of her drinking binges, dissatisfaction with son Mikey's homosexual life style, the abrupt ending of the love affair with Myers the landscape gardener¨she perseveres, manages her catering business, and educates Molly. What finally breaks the spirit of this generous and indomitable character is the return of her abusive husband. She moves to start a new life in Toronto and reconciles with her daughter Glory and sons Freddie and Peppie.
How does an independent free-spirited woman take to the confines of a cold-weather society? How does a fourteen-year-old learn to love and replace the beloved maternal figure in her life with the real mother she had never known? While the plot line suggests a simple story of love and reconciliation, the novel turns out to be anything but that. Silvera skillfully weaves her story of the generations of Galloways; using the minutiae of experience, she brings life to their existence both in Jamaica and Canada. Here we find the eccentric, disgruntled misfits¨the wife-abusing son who sires and conveniently forgets his children, Glory who at thirty finds her fully-endowed daughter an embarrassment, and perceives her to be a rival for her husband Sid's affections. Mama's need to dominate her children's lives and create havoc in her son's marriage lends additional spark to the plot.
The Heart Does Not Bend is a rich, complex family saga. Silvera reflects on the cruelty and unforgiving homophobia underlying her culture. Much to Mama's chagrin, her beloved granddaughter Molly becomes romantically involved with a woman. Mama refuses to accept the relationship and is as adamantly disapproving as she had previously been of her son Mikey's unconventional lifestyle. In Silvera's skillful hands, Molly's attempt, devoid of self-pity, to chart a course between duty and her own desires is convincing. The grandmother-granddaughter symbiosis is at once beautiful and heartbreaking, for although Molly is resourceful and determined, her inability to choose between her own happiness and her disapproving grandmother wreaks havoc in her life. The price of love, Silvera seems to be suggesting, is sometimes too high
Mama's hostility towards this form of love is incomprehensible because the women in this book right down to Miss Gatty, a maid hired to clean mama's home, are resourceful and energetic. By contrast, the men tend to be, if not alcoholic and abusive, useless at best. In this way, Silvera makes a case for celebrating female love.
Silvera's delineation of loss and alienation, and the precision of her insights are truly commendable. And beyond the content, there is power and beauty in her writing. She has a firm grip on the language¨the oral tradition and patois of Jamaica are effectively intertwined with formal Standard English. This engrossing story reads with a poignant intensity, as it tells of the dilemmas and the universal struggle of coping with the choices the heart makes. ˛