Writings / Reviews: H. Nigel Thomas

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Fiction and Poetry Reviews

Red Jacket
by Pamela Mordecai,
Toronto: TAP Books, 2015
462 pp. $24.99

Red Jacket is Pamela Mordecai’s second book-length foray into adult prose fiction. Both books were written after a long career of writing children’s books and poetry. Some of the effective qualities of such writing—cinematic clarity and musicality, for example—are evident in Red Jacket. (“Gramps face turn into stone, and the gleam in his eye vanishes, like you dash water on fire.” (p. 199) “No mind the pills she’d taken, her head feels like an anvil in a busy smithy.” (225). Poets adding prose fiction to their craft is not unusual. It offers greater space to portray their themes and makes their work available to a broader audience. It’s no longer a secret that even the well-educated in Western countries have trouble understanding complex poetry. There is nevertheless poetry in Red Jacket: the poetry of the folk in the novel’s Caribbean and African settings. It is omnipresent and seamlessly woven into the narrative.

A major portion of the novel covers the life of its protagonist Grace, who was born to a twelve-year-old mother and raised until late adolescence by family friends. Intellectually gifted and strong-willed to the point that it earns her the nickname Miss Determination, Grace obtains several bursaries that take her from her birthplace, St Christopher (an invented Caribbean island that resembles Jamaica and is located “south of the western tip of Cuba” (Mordecai, “Note.”)) to university in Toronto, Ann Arbor (Michigan) and back to St Christopher, where she completes a doctorate, following which she is employed by the World Health Organisation. Her employment takes her to Mabuli, (an invented “small country between Mali and Burkina Faso, taking up a bit of each and bordering Côte d’Ivoire in the South” (Mordecai, “Note.”), the second of the novel’s major settings, where she is involved with a project to prevent the spread of HIV and provide support to those who are already infected. But there’s chaos in her personal life when she arrives and that chaos will remain unresolved to the very end of the novel.

The Mabuli setting brings Jimmy into the narrative. He is a Jesuit priest, and much of his drama turns around personal tragedy and the renunciation of sex that his vocation requires. This battle with himself accounts for much of the angst that drives a significant portion of the novel and contributes to developing one of its subthemes: progeny resulting from consensual and non-consensual sex, in or out of wedlock.

Red Jacket touches on the theme of sexual fidelity. The prose seems to falter in this area: the dialogue is stilted and formulaic. It could have been excised with no loss to the main story.

A major theme of Red Jacket is the individual relationship with the Judaeo-Christian God, a theme that Mordecai began to pursue assiduously in her verse drama De Man, a folk portrayal of Christ written in Jamaican English. In Red Jacket, however, the characters confront God— “wrestle with him,” Gramps says. Jimmy opposes Catholic orthodoxy; it puts him in conflict with his superiors. Gramps—the most endearing of the secondary characters—has no compunction about radically adjusting Judaeo-Christian ethics to resolve a specific moral problem. Grace gradually moves from a more orthodox vision of God and Gramps and Jimmy’s more creative vision almost to the point of renunciation. This theme is handled with humour, delicacy and complexity and is one of the strengths of the novel. A very young Grace observes that:

God and Gramps are often scamps together, though if you are God, you couldn’t be a scamp. But if you make the laws, you could break them if you want. It sweet Grace to think God change his mind and break his own rules, and it don’t at all surprise her that God should give Gramps leave to do things others are not allowed to do. Gramps is special. God is smart so he should know. (p. 34)


Red Jacket defies many conventional expectations. It dispels the notion that one is fated to remain burdened by devastating childhood trauma. Phyllis, Grace’s mother, who is more socially conforming than Grace, surmounts the trauma she endured at twelve. One could draw a parallel between her and Black slave women who endured every conceivable atrocity and managed to survive. Grace too rejects being burdened by circumstances beyond her control. But for her early flirtation with basic Christianity, she could easily have been an existential character resigned to and unbothered by the dictates of fate. The presence too of a generous, caring Chinese shopkeeper runs counter to the stereotypical Caribbean narratives of such characters.
One of the novel’s captivating qualities is the ease with which Mordecai interweaves Jamaican and standard English—and this in spite of Mordecai’s claim that that the vernacular isn’t altogether Jamaican. Here are samples:

Long life, white rum, and years of singing in the gospel choir give Gramps voice a deep, sweet sound. Sometimes, if rum recently oil Gramps throat, and he making arguments political or spiritual, that voice pour out like waters rushing on the river bottom over a million pebbles and make Grace shiver in her deepest insides. Gramps is forever talking about pit and jail and trap. She wonder who ever put Gramps into a pit or a jail, a tall, strong man, and, so far as Grace could see, no trap in all the world clever enough to catch him. (16)


Grace so frighten she pick up her two foot and take off into the forest after Gramps, never mind she not supposed to follow him. (36)


Another quality is Mordecai’s wit, in this case encapsulated in metaphor:

All this trouble sake of one little hole in a woman’s body. She had forgotten Woman Hole, a place near Tavern Town where, never mind the dangerous curve, people stop on the road to pitch their garbage down the hillside. There’s no actual hole, and nobody can see where the filth lands up. (p. 203).


One can quibble with a couple of the novel’s features. Jimmy’s story—its detailed setting and worldview, the many characters he brings, along with his vocational and physiological problems—seems to compete with Grace’s narrative. It makes this reviewer wonder whether initially there were two independent narratives that Mordecai fused. The other quibble is the novel’s truncated and sometimes surreal feel because of its multiple third-person narrators who sometimes leap the story into a future unlinked to anything the reader knows. This would not have been a problem if the story were told using flashbacks. These aside, Red Jacket is successful in that it holds the reader’s attention from start to finish and invites us to reflect on many issues that assail us. It is a significant fictional accomplishment.

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