In Another Place, Not Here

by Dionne Brand,
256 pages,
ISBN: 0802116221

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First Novels - The Knopf Four
by Eva Tihanyi

Both the most overtly political and the most opaquely written of the four books is Dionne Brand's In Another Place, Not Here. Brand, who has published a number of poetry volumes, including the best-selling No Language is Neutral (1990), has written a book that relies far more on its linguistic strengths than on its story-line. In fact, the plot is quite simple. Verlia, who leaves the Caribbean for Toronto when she is seventeen, returns fifteen years later to help organize the sugar-cane workers, of whom Elizete is one. The two become lovers, and, after Verlia meets a tragic end, Elizete herself goes to Toronto to share her grief with Verlia's previous lover, Abena.

The book is divided into two sections. In the first, Elizete voices her own story, how as a young girl she was sent to live with a mean older woman, and then when this woman died, was married off as an adolescent to the equally mean Isaiah. Elizete has known nothing but hard labour, dreams of escaping to a different life, to "another place, not here."

In the second section, a third-person telling of Verlia's life, it becomes quickly evident that Verlia is no dreamer. She wants action; she wants to effect political change. Where Elizete sees Verlia as "her grace, her way of leaping into another life," Verlia, who already made that leap by moving to Toronto, sees Elizete as a woman to save. Elizete is Verlia's political mission made manifest and particularized.

As with all novels written in poetic prose, no amount of paraphrasing can substitute for the reader's actual experience of reading them. Such works rely on the writer's ability to shape the language not into a story in the conventional sense, but into the very spirit of the characters themselves. When this succeeds, as it does especially in Elizete's section, the result is startling, as if we had entered the heart of another human being.

One final word about the novels as a group: I challenge anyone who can say, after reading these books, that there is a dearth of Canadian literary talent. Knopf should be commended for recognizing and supporting it; the rest of us should too.


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