Cascade by Barbara Lalla – Book Review

 

dsc_0109Cascade received 2010 University of the West Indies Press Awardnominated for the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature.

Barbara Lalla’s beautifully written novel explores a universal question: when, where and how does one grow old with dignity. The intricate story begins in Jamaica and Trinidad. Lalla tells a moving and suspenseful tale of families dealing with ageing in a shifting culture. British-colonial influences clash with modern Jamaican politics, and lawlessness is on the rise.

Early on we meet four elderly characters related by blood and marriage, Ivy, Rosemarie, Ellie and Dan, who meet regularly at Ivy’s guesthouse in the mountains. Their comfortable bonds, intertwined with respect for extended families and servants, developed over decades within a gracious lifestyle that is slowly disappearing from their homeland.

The vital foursome plan to stick together at the guesthouse after retiring from urban Kingston as a way to keep independent, freeing their children of the burden of care-giving. Rosemarie, formerly a nursing matron in the United States and Jamaica, promises to care for the others if the need should arise over time.

But Ellie and Dan make the difficult decision instead to leave their Kingston home, where a recent intrusion highlighted the couple’s helplessness against the threat of crime. They move to their daughter Rachel’s home in Trinidad. Rachel, her husband Rabin, and their teenage son Andy welcome Ellie and Dan with high hopes. But as years pass, Ellie and Dan become saddened and mystified by the confusion surrounding their beloved Rosemarie’s thwarted plans to leave Jamaica for visits. Hampered by the constraints imposed on her by her shallow stepson Scotty and his greedy tourist home development on dying Ivy’s property, the two elderly women feel confined against their wills.

Suspense builds through the voices of various family members and servants as the four main characters parallel experiences unfold. We learn of dishonourable dealings by former trusted characters, their legal advisers and corrupt opportunists before the impact of these developments is obvious to Ellie and Dan, or overworked Rachel their daughter/caregiver in Trinidad. Communications break down and confusion about Rosemarie’s situation increases as Ellie and Dan face a health crisis no one could have predicted.

The action returns to Cascade when it’s decided that Ellie should return there for an extended stay to give Rachel and her family a rest from caregiving, and an opportunity to visit Rabin’s family in Canada. This innocent decision reunites Ellie with her friend Rosemarie, but plunges her into chaos at a vastly changed guest house. Deplorable conditions exist for the seniors who are hidden away upstairs, while rich tourists luxuriate in expensive downstairs rooms with spectacular views. Thwarted for years by her stepson from contacting Dan and Ellie, Rosemarie has been unable to report on the escalating seniors’ abuse that she and the others suffer at the hands of Scotty and his heartless wife, Pansy.

In the beginning the challenge to understand the accented speech of some Jamaican characters, especially the under-privileged and uneducated slowed my reading pace. But Barbara Lalla knew when to pull back, using these characters primarily to illustrate important developments, or to illuminate backstory, or show the personalities of major characters.

Dan, his wife Ellie and their sister-in-law Rosemarie visit Ivy’s guesthouse, as told from Rosemarie’s point of view:
Over the years we would drive north through the hills for a weekend, just as Dan and Ellie had always done before I came to them, and we would arrive at Miss Ivy’s, shouting for her above the uproar, for Dan held down the car horn to drown out the dogs.

“Hysterical as always,” he would grumble.

Basil would saunter out with that mournful smile (“lugubrious as usual,” Ellie would say, and grin) and he would calm the dogs. Basil’s title was Butler but really he functioned as general handyman and gardener, so right away someone would hound him to produce a breadfruit and get it on the coals.

“Just pick it fram one of dem tree right her so, Basil. Nuh go hill and gully a look fe it.”

While she ordered Basil around, Petrona would tumble ackees out of the bankra and rummage for Scotch bonnet peppers. Eventually, it was Ivy’s place that inspired it all.

“I sometimes dream of escaping the gathering confusion in Kingston for good,” Dan had been saying of late.

So, now that the madness had actually touched us, it was Ivy’s we longed for, for sanity.

Cascade explores with sensitivity the increasingly prevalent and global issues of non-standardized caregiving and caregiver burnout, as well as the widening chasm between generations in a modern family. But it also highlights the love and commitment among family and lifelong friends.

The feisty Ellie and her allies at Cascade engage us with the determination to live life well and on their own terms. When they face genuine danger, we desperately want them to muster the skills, despite the limitations of age, to overcome their adversaries.

Published by the University of the West Indies Press (2010), Contact: Laura J. Rust, Scholarly Book Services Inc., Toronto, 1-800-847-9736, Fax 1-800-220-9895

Barbara Lalla is Professor of Language and Literature, Department of Liberal Arts, University of the West Indies, Trinidad and Tobago. She is the author of a number of scholarly books and articles, most recently Postcolonialisms: Caribbean Re-reading of Medieval English Discourse. Her first novel, a Jamaican family saga, Arch of Fire, appeared in 1998 and has since been translated into German.
OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature: http://www.bocaslitfest.com

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