Shani Mootoo is one of those rare writers who really know how to tell a good story. Her first novel, Cereus Blooms at Night (1998), was a magical and sensual narrative that transported the reader in both place and time. He Drown She in the Sea is a story as finely told, but without the magic realism of her first novel. Set in the Caribbean, in the fictional island of Guanagaspar, this is a story of what time, age, and longing do to us all and how, for better or worse, the interconnectedness of life abounds.
Those who believe in fate will be satisfied with the back-and-forth narrative of Harry, only son of Dolly, a widowed housemaid, and his friendship with Rose, the young daughter of Mrs. Sangha, Dolly’s employer. This is an island in which people of African and Indian descent coexist peacefully. However, the age-old problem of the mixing of classes exists as Harry, still a young boy, learns the painful lesson that rarely, if ever, can anyone transcend the class they are born into. The acceptance of this edict will eventually lead him, as a grown man, to seek life elsewhere, in Vancouver, Canada. Despite the difficult task of trying to reinvent himself and forget what he cannot have, he eventually comes face-to-face with the force that conspires to ruin everything that he holds dear. He is summoned back to the island after many years by Cassie, Rose’s daughter, amazed at his own predilection to travel so far without really knowing why, only that if it involves Rose, he must confront the past:
The sea is still not visible, yet the air is saturated with its odors. He can smell, almost taste, its washed-up debris. Roadside pedestrians, some transporting pails of water on their head, people sitting in rockers on their front porches, and men riding bicycles, some of whom are barefoot, wave as the Austen passes. A tide of belonging washes over Harry. Elderberry Bay and all that he has accomplished in that part of the world seem in an instant like a dream, a good dream, but very far away.
While the patois of the Caribbean, as Mootoo renders it, can be occasionally confusing, causing the reader to have to reread a sentence or two, it adds to the tableau of the island’s inhabitants. Mootoo creates a longing for familiarity that is often so elusive, and pain can always be found just below the surface. But while this is a story of loss, it is also the story of possibility, and what happens when an instant of opportunity, like grace from God, presents itself.