The Land of Love and Drowning by Tiphanie Yanique
Riverhead Books, 2014
Tiphanie Yanique’s debut novel, The Land of Love and Drowning, is set on the island of St. Thomas in the wake of the transfer of the Virgin Islands from Danish to American rule. The novel is as much about the island of St. Thomas itself as it is about the various generations of the Bradshaw family who inhabit it.
When the novel opens, the wealthy Captain Bradshaw is married to the unruly but beautiful Antoinette. Although the Bradshaws rank among the elite of the Virgin Islands, Antoinette herself hails from a wilder set. Bradshaw plucked her from Anegada, an atoll barely above sea level.
At the time of their marriage, Antoinette was already pregnant by another man, but that problem, the narrator assures us, was no real problem at all. “Swift as anything, captain and girl wash that other man baby away.”
Antoinette gets in the habit of “washing her babies” away, but two manage to survive. The astoundingly beautiful Eeona was born in the early part of Antoinette’s marriage, when the Bradshaws were still counted among the wealthy elite of the island. Anette, who was too stubborn to succumb to abortion, was born just before a shipwreck plunges the Bradshaws into poverty.
It is through Anette and Eeona that we see the class distinctions on St. Thomas play out. At the beginning of the book, as St. Thomas is transitioning from Danish to American rule, the class distinctions on the island are not so much a matter of race as of economics. Eeona, born to a family with ample wealth and gentility, receives an education suitable for a gentleman’s daughter. She dresses carefully and speaks perfect English. Anette, raised in a newly impoverished family, was left to scramble for whatever education was available to the general island populace. She has a rougher outlook and a bawdy way of speaking about things Eeona would rather leave unsaid. It is Anette who tells us how her mother got in the habit of washing her unwanted babies away.
The tough thing about this book is that every character in it is mildly appalling. Incest is treated as part of the fabric of life, as are curses and a dense web of family secrets. This book has a great story woven into a compelling setting, but the unrelenting horror embedded in the characters’ lives made at least half my book club bail on reading it halfway through.