Move on up
By Lisa Allen-Agostini
Into the Mosaic, by Marlene St Rose
Athena Press, ISBN 978-1-84748-184- 9, 228 pp
The historical novel can be an exciting glimpse into a time or location that has gone the way of the dinosaur, bringing the dusty past to vivid, pulsing life. On the other hand, a badly done historical novel can be as dusty as the past it tries to illuminate, failing to create believable characters, dialogue, or settings in favour of tedious repetition of historical detail.
To her credit, Marlene St Rose has succeeded to some extent in avoiding the latter trap. Her novel Into the Mosaic seeks to tell the story of the Indian immigrant’s success in the Trinidadian community. That story is admirably researched and adequately told. As a historical narrative, it succeeds, even as it fails as a novel because it utterly lacks cohesive conflict. St Rose, a Trinidad-born English teacher who has made her career in St Lucia, traces the history of the Khan family from arrival on an immigrant ship to their absorption “into the mosaic” of the multicultural island of St Rose’s birth. The Khans achieve success in business, acceptance into the middle class, and high position in the missionary Canadian Presbyterian church in the island — through sheer hard work, good thinking, and sacrifice, the novel says. Each character is a shining example of the above, whether it be the teenage girl who marries an old man for his money (sacrifice), the studious boy who gives up his name and his family for the opportunity to study more and become part of the Presbyterian establishment (hard work and sacrifice), or the clever agriculturist who parlays his love of the land into a large farm and lumber concern (hard work, good thinking, and sacrifice).
The conflict in the novel is embodied in the circumstances over which the characters must triumph. Those difficulties — while not negligible — are just not significant enough to give the novel teeth. There is no villain, no self-doubt, no evil. There is only poverty and the same hard choices that we all have to make in our own lives, and, sadly, that’s not interesting enough to carry the story.
What St Rose does well, however, is evoke the times about which she writes. With a very nice touch she describes the various settings of the tale, from late-nineteenth-century cocoa estates in the Maracas Valley to the mid-twentieth-century streets of the emerging town of San Fernando, and various points in between. There is a palpable sense of this being a family’s history, which, coupled with the almost reverent tone of each characterisation, makes one suspect this is the story of the author’s own family, rather than the purely researched product of her imagination. And despite its shortcomings, Into the Mosaic would be a useful addition to the library of anyone interested in Indo-Caribbean, Presbyterian, or Trinidadian history.
Lisa Allen-Agostini is a Trinidadian writer of poetry, fiction, and drama. She co-edited the anthology Trinidad Noir (2008), and her young adult novel The Chalice Project was published earlier this year. She writes a weekly column for the Trinidad Guardian.