Timothy Williams' Guadeloupe-based series has been in the to-try queue for some time now. Another Sun (2012, Soho Press) definitely did not disappoint on the atmosphere front although I had a hard-ish time following the plot and I'm not sure if that is on me or the plot itself.
Our Heroine in Another Sun is Anne-Marie Laveaud, a French woman who is a local juge d'instruction, some sort of official whose job it is to determine if crimes have actually occurred, and against whom charges should be made. A wealthy landowner has been shot, and the crime is pinned on an old, almost-vagrant ex-con with the mellifluous name of Hégéssipe Bray. The victim and his apparent killer's lives have intertwined for decades, as have so many on this island of former slave plantations, populated by descendants of native Indians, slaves, white owners, and French administrators. It is a complex creole soup and Anne-Marie soon realizes that old rages have combined with modern political dramas to tangle this killing up with some other potentially nasty doings.
The writing here is nicely unobtrusive, that is to say, it did not distract from the story in a bad way, which is just how I like it. The characters are carefully drawn, with individual complexities except that I still don't quite follow all of their motivations. Would these be confirmed in a subsequent book in the series? Or is the idea just to reinforce the complicated and interwoven nature of local society? There is just a lot going on, outside of the main crime - political issues, Anne-Marie's complicated family dynamic, other French and locals who may or may not want anything to do with her, and so on. If you pull a thread here, you get a whole bunch of other ones that you might not have been expecting.
The setting is terrific, lots of flame trees and cracked streets and sun-bleached buildings but not a lot of powdery white beaches and beautiful people - Williams' islands are tourist destinations only on the periphery of his story, but actual people are born, live, and die here. This is both the tropical paradise of the BBC's "Death in Paradise" and a bleaker setting marked by age-old racial divide and endless poverty. This paragraph, in the opening chapter, made me think of our late-night arrival in Martinique twenty-plus years ago.
"The fronds swayed and creaked. The pond lay in the hollow of the sloping valley. Grass-covered hills ran down to the edge of the white dirt track and its two parallel lines of coconut trees. To the east, against the darkening hill top, rose the gaunt silhouette of the derelict sugar refinery. A couple of hangars and a tall, crumbing chimney that pointed to the sky and the rising half moon." (2)
I can just smell the distilleries. Williams does employ more romantic descriptions of these islands, but as memories from Anne-Marie's earlier married years, when she did not really know much of the world in which she was coming to live. It is an effective way to evoke the loss of her romantic and political innocence.
Williams clearly has a deep understanding of the complex social strata that makes up this old island complex. (No surprise; he lives in Guadeloupe and Another Sun was first published in French.) Modern French history is pretty darn complicated, when you start trying to suss out what happened in Algeria, and in France in 1968 and why do they still own islands in the Caribbean anyway? We Americans don't tend to think of France's colonial past that much, maybe because we remain grateful for their help in our Revolution, and the World Wars so dominate our own history. But of course they did get into all kinds of trouble, perhaps because that fabled devotion to liberté, egalité, fraternité is actually hard to put into practice if you are being a colonial overlord. Any story that seeks to involve historical threads can get very complicated, very fast. An author either has to go into deep background, as Martin Thomas did in Black Diamond, or risk his reader losing the plot as I did sometimes here, by using brief references and character vignettes. I think I get it - basically there is an independence movement in Guadeloupe that is not particularly effective because it doesn't have much white power behind it, and that drives some of what happens here - but I kept getting distracted by references to Algeria and 1968 and hippies and the like. I still don't know who Jerry Dupont is!
To be fair, I was moderately distracted while reading this, and the disconnect between the the islands of Guadeloupe and the fishing camp in Maine where I started it, may well have exacerbated by occasional disconnect with the story. I think I'd give this series a second try, if only to visit those islands again.