Modern love

By Nicholas Laughlin

What You Can’t Tell Him, by Sharon Leach
(StarApple Publishers, ISBN 978-976-95157-2-8, 215 pp)

In “How to Leave”, the first story in this debut book of short fiction, the narrator — a young Jamaican woman named Katrina — recalls spotting a debonair possible suitor at a dinner party:

Spy him through the kitchen window, mingling with the other guests on the back patio, gorgeously lit by a cast of brilliant blue from the pool. He seems to have expensive tastes. He is wearing a black ribbed muscle t-shirt and sleek black slacks, which you know for a fact are name brand. Very urban chic. Very Sex and the City. You like.

The city is usually Kingston in these fifteen stories — though two are set in New York, one partly in Paris — and there is indeed a splendid abundance of sex; also stylish clothes, expensive tastes, frustrated longings; infidelity, heartbreak, secrets, and lies. What Katrina can’t tell the unnamed man she ends up with after the party (not, alas, Mr Muscle T-shirt) is what few of the women in Sharon Leach’s stories can tell their men, whether husbands or lovers: “all the complicated inner life involved in your being a layered, complex woman.”

Those layers, and the complexities of being an ambitious, independent, savvy middle-class (or working-to-get-there) woman in contemporary Jamaica, are the subject of most of these stories. Leach’s heroines (or anti-heroines) are typically career women, executive assistants and communications consultants. They may live in plush Upper St Andrew mansions or tiny studio flats, but their homes are carefully decorated. They dress well, and know the inside of a Victoria’s Secret catalogue. They like the finer things — art, wine, travel — and if they can’t afford them yet, they plan to. They are straightforward about their sexual needs, casual about erotic flings, but less sure about “settling down.” There are tens of thousands of women like them in Kingston, Port of Spain, Bridgetown — the whole urban Caribbean. And, remarkably, they have been largely absent from West Indian writing until now.

Many Anglophone Caribbean writers are still preoccupied with rural or working-class characters, or with the past; exemplary subjects for fiction, but too often ignoring the real, risky here and now of contemporary Caribbean life, and the fact that our societies are increasingly urban and middle-class. Simply by writing, frankly and sympathetically, about characters who one imagines are much like her own peers — as Elizabeth Walcott-Hardy does in Four Taxis Facing North — Leach has broken through an all but unacknowledged barrier in West Indian letters. She reminds us that one of fiction’s responsibilities is to show us to ourselves.

A couple of these stories are wry comedies: “Superwoman and the Lizard”, about a disastrous encounter between an infatuated reptile and an overtaxed “independent woman”; “Me and Jack”, an offbeat tale in which one of the main characters is an imaginary Jack Nicholson; even “Confessions of a Whore”, a gently over-the-top history of a schoolteacher’s turn to high-class prostitution. But the prevailing tone of What You Can’t Tell Him is bittersweet melancholy. Leach often introduces her women at morning-after, honeymoon-over moments, when their romantic relationships have taken a wrong turn, or seem about to: should they stay, should they go? Their choices are never easy. Loneliness one way, boredom another, both paths probably paved with regret. In “The Divorce”, the news that her ex-husband has broken up with his second wife forces Jeannie, a self-sufficient music executive, to confront her still-smouldering feelings for him. In “Lover”, Donna’s apparently comfortable affair with a married man is imperiled by his decision to end his marriage. “Isn’t this what every mistress wants?” she thinks.

I beat the statistics. I beat the odds. He is leaving his wife and his family for me . . . I am a thirty-eight-year-old single woman in a relationship — sometimes happily, every now and then unhappily — with a man whom I’ve always assumed would never be mine. Why am I not ecstatic at the news that he is to be free?

These are women who — like most of us — know and yet don’t know what they want. ’Tis better to have loved and lost, but for most of these women — for all of us — love always, inevitably, involves loss.

At her most alert, Leach writes a feisty, crisp prose, her eye falling lightly on the small gestures and objects from which her characters assemble their everydays, her ear tuned into the little clichés through which they mislead themselves. Her concentration slips from time to time; there are fuzzy phrases here that a sensitive editor might have tweaked into focus. And Leach’s psychological penetration flags in one or two of these stories, like “A Season in San Bonita” (artist leaves her home in Manhattan, has a brief but life-affirming affair in a fictional Caribbean island), and “Phobia” (young Jamaica-born woman living in New York is afflicted with various neuroses). Leach skillfully delineates her characters’ portraits using mundane but telling details, but in these cases the details don’t quite ring true. Not so, on the other hand, in a story like “Addiction”. Another Jamaican woman living in New York, this time intoxicated with a charming, damaged man whom she knows is damaging her. The story ends with an almost-epiphany, as Elizabeth decides she will give him up, cold turkey. Will she really? Elizabeth, like the reader, is and isn’t sure; that sense of calm true-to-life uncertainty is one of Leach’s characteristic strengths.


The Caribbean Review of Books, May 2008

Nicholas Laughlin is the editor of The Caribbean Review of Books.