By A. Naomi Jackson
The Ladies Are Upstairs, by Merle Collins
(Peepal Tree Press, ISBN 9781845231798, 154 pp)
Hillside houses, Grenada. Photograph by Tony Hisgett, posted at Flickr under a Creative Commons license
As the ingenious title of Merle Collins’s short fiction collection suggests, The Ladies Are Upstairs explores the stories of downstairs women, women who work. In one of the book’s freshest scenes, a domestic worker shouts to her employer that the lady who sells jack fish is downstairs, before her boss lady corrects her. “‘A lady in the yard with jacks?,’ she ask me … ‘The ladies are upstairs.’” The book’s triumphs lie in its ability to chronicle, through the story of one woman, the wider story of many black Caribbean women’s experiences with work, family, illegitimacy, and emigration.
In these linked short stories, we are invited into the world of Doux Thibaut, a woman born into a hardscrabble life in the fictional Caribbean island of Paz in the 1920s. Paz is close both geographically and culturally to Collins’s home island of Grenada. These stories take us from Doux’s early childhood through her adolescence and adult years working for a well-to-do family in Paz, to her experiences as a young mother, and finally her twilight years shuffling between her children’s homes in Boston and Brooklyn. Doux, known affectionately to her husband Jeremiah as Sweetie, is, like Paz, an example in opposites. The sweetness of her name belies the challenging nature of her life. In the aptly titled story “You Don’t Count”, Doux tells her employer, “I know trouble, Mr Peter,” and her entire life seems accurately encapsulated in those five words. After Doux learns from a man in the district that she is illegitimate, and therefore a child who doesn’t count, her mother says with painful nonchalance: “Is due to your father and the fact that your mother splice in there between your father and his wife.” Here in Paz — and some of the truths of this fictional Caribbean island seem to have resonance for life in all the Caribbean — emotional difficulty is a fact of life to be accepted and endured, no more notable than the weather.
The Doux stories, which make up the bulk of The Ladies Are Upstairs, are juxtaposed sharply against the first story in the collection. “Rain Darling” examines the abbreviated life of a woman who responds to the news that she is a bastard child and the fact of her limited horizons — working as a maid for white people abroad, or wealthier, lighter-skinned people in Paz — as well as years of abuse at the hands of an evil aunt, by descending first into depression, and finally into madness. Where Rain’s days spool out aimlessly as she is haunted by the past in Paz’s asylum, Doux becomes a prisoner as an old woman in her daughter’s home. While the book’s cover blurb promises that these stories’ “juxtaposition contrasts two very different responses to the hazards of life,” the contrast is not a favourable one. The Doux stories are made brighter by the natural landscape, the passage of time, and the different characters that tell them. Rain’s story, by comparison, feels flat, and gets off to a clunky, slow start. The book would have benefited from more stories set in the earlier part of Doux’s life, and from resisting the impulse to include “Rain Darling” here.
The Ladies Are Upstairs has many strengths, among them Collins’s ability to delve into questions that have dogged Caribbean people both at home and in the Caribbean diaspora over the last century. One salient question: what does home mean when you’re forced to leave it in order to make a way for yourself and your family? Here we see not just the story of struggle at home or the struggle in a new country, but also where these two narratives intersect — for instance, the hassle of accepting help from those abroad, as Doux navigates the Pax customs service to receive a barrel of presents her children send from the United States. In The Ladies Are Upstairs, the necessity of leaving home and the disappointment and difficulty upon leaving — both for those who go and for those who are left behind — is reflected in a rhyme that recurs:
They cut me down
And now I have no home
I don’t live in country
I don’t live in town
They cut me down.
The stories take occasional flights of magical realism that make Paz and its inhabitants come alive, and offer a fresh take on some of the issues facing the contemporary Caribbean. For example, Collins uses a La Diablesse story to show the havoc that an obsession with the future has wrought on Paz, as a whole bevy of cloven-hoofed La Diablesse temptress ghosts congregate on the spot where a tree has been unceremoniously chopped down to make way for a new development. In another story, “Big Stone”, Nurse Chalmers encounters a spirit child sitting by herself on her way home from delivering Doux’s second baby. After she throws the ghost of the child over her shoulder, a spirit calls after her, saying, “Ou tini bon chance, ou. Ou a parti” — “You’re lucky. You escape.” The escape here is not just from being dragged into the spirit world by this trickster child spirit, but also the escape from Paz, and moreover from the suffering that defines life there.
The book benefits from its technique of linked short stories, told from different perspectives, including those of Doux, her mother, the midwife who delivers Doux and Jeremiah’s children, and Doux’s grandson Jericho. This allows for a shifting lens on Doux’s life, and enables the author to tell the story not just of Doux and her family but also of the entire community she comes from. That said, there seems to be a lost opportunity to draw out the rhythms and culture of the small community of Hideout Hill by the stories’ constant shifts from there to Paz City to Joie de Vivre — places whose names are apparently intended to draw attention to the difference between the promise of beauty on Paz and the emotional and material difficulty that defines life there. This shifting geography is highlighted further towards the end of the book, where there are several stories set in the United States. While I appreciate the author’s ambition to use this book to explore the entire arc of Doux’s life from birth to death, I found these stories stilted, lacking the confident voice and authenticity that distinguish the earlier Doux stories set in Paz.
But, overall, The Ladies Are Upstairs is a fresh and engaging read, a fine addition from one of the Caribbean’s most capable storytellers. Readers are graced with the gift of Collins’s sure-handed, lush writing, shot through with the sounds and landscape of the Caribbean, as well as the rich emotional texture of contemporary Caribbean and Caribbean-American women’s experiences.
A. Naomi Jackson studied fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. A recipient of a Fulbright scholarship to South Africa, her work has appeared in brilliant corners, The Encyclopedia Project, Obsidian, The Caribbean Writer, and Sable. She is currently the 2013–2014 ArtsEdge writer in residence at the University of Pennsylvania, at work on her first novel.