A keen observation of Caribbean nuances
The 15 stories in Christine Barrow’s Black Dogs and the Colour Yellow have varying themes, characters, and dilemmas. For the most part, they are set in Barbados, Barrow’s adopted country for almost 50 years.
In the first story, ‘Panama Man’, we visit Panama with the 70-year-old Margaret or Maggie as she is called. Maggie makes the trip with her granddaughter Keisha, in an attempt to somehow reconnect with her grandfather, A.D. Braithwaite, who left Barbados at the turn of the 20th century to help construct the Panama Canal. Brathwaite left soon after Maggie’s 10th birthday and should therefore have been deceased by the time of his granddaughter’s visit.
In this first story, Barrow effectively communicates the loss an individual feels when suddenly and forever separated from a loved one. Haunted by that premature and permanent separation, Maggie’s desire to reconnect with her grandfather seems even more urgent after her cancer diagnosis.
As Maggie listens to the guide who documents her Colombian and Chinese heritage, thanks to the mass migration to Panama, she pictures “trails of men criss-crossing the world – from Barbados to Panama to China, like ants marching over an enormous, sugar-coated net. Women everywhere losing their fathers, their children’s fathers, their sons – all of them leaving home and making new families far away. And all those children left behind”.
The story ends as it begins, with Maggie writing her grandfather’s story, or rewriting it, and through the rewrite, Maggie and her grandfather “will fly far away from the dead-grey canal, over the dark green forest to the blue Pacific Coast (where) the sun will burnish his sallow skin, the rain wash away his cars and cool his fever (and) golden corn tamales will nourish his bones”.
Book editors advise to begin and end strong, and this is exactly what Barrow does in Black Dogs and the Colour Yellow. In the last two stories – ‘Still’ and ‘Ben’, Barrow presents a married couple, Sonia and Ben, who experience the tragedy of stillbirth. We see how this loss breaks down both individuals, but we also see the different ways in which they grieve and continue their lives after the fact.
You can almost picture Barrow observing individuals, sniffing at their frail bits and filling in their stories. There is an accurate portrayal of Caribbean class nuances that adds to the work’s authenticity.
In addition to loss and the varying ways in which individuals react to it, there is another recurring complexity that the author Barrow reflects – a definite indication of her commitment to depicting, as close as possible, the nuances of Caribbean life in her prose. There are three stories – ‘Three, Two, One’, ‘Evelyn’, and ‘Still’ – whereby Barrow reflects on that dividing class structure, or birthright issue, of many Caribbean societies.
In ‘Three, Two, One’, there are three adult best friends, who met at primary school. As we know, people from varying social backgrounds go to primary schools in the Caribbean since many of them often yield excellent exam results and uphold strict disciplinary standards. As the story progresses, however, we see how the different societal backgrounds and home environments actually serve as blueprints for their lives.
It’s the same with ‘Evelyn’, a very touching story in which two best friends from childhood end up on different paths – paths that somehow seem set because of the different social backgrounds from which they spring. Evelyn and Sylvie were friends from school days. Their family backgrounds were, however, different. Granted, Evelyn had both parents, but as she remembers a particular moment in their friendship when Sylvie was reminiscing on her happy childhood with Easter bonnets, yellow ribbons, being Mary in the nativity play, and winning first prize in a singing contest, the narrator tells us that Evelyn felt “like a blackbird keeping company with a yellow, squawking parrot”.
In contrast to Easter bonnets, Evelyn’s childhood memories include “the time the girl from up the gap disappeared and they never found her. She even asks herself, “How my memories could be so different?”
It is Evelyn who becomes pregnant while still at school, drops out, and becomes the outcast and the foil to Sylvie, who stays ‘chaste’, stays in school, and ends up marrying “the insurance man with his pink tie and matching kerchief… and his white, new brand Honda car…”.
Barrow, born in the United Kingdom, worked as an academic in Caribbean social development at The University of the West Indies, Cave Hill campus in Barbados. She quite adequately captures Caribbean class nuances, without creating stock or one-dimensional personalities pigeon-holed into certain clichéd conclusions. Yes, Evelyn experiences adult life trials earlier than Sylvie, but it is Sylvie whose husband dies early in their marriage, leaving her a single parent, just as Evelyn.
Like Panama Man and the last two stories – ‘Still’ and ‘Ben’, ‘Evelyn’ examines the characters’ reactions to loss. Aside from losing her ‘footing’ and the social standing she could have achieved had she stayed in school, Evelyn loses her childhood friend to death by cancer but, before that, to the class divide that sets them apart, despite their friendship. As a young widow and single mom, Sylvie reaches out to Evelyn, who, in turn, assists her best friend in raising her son, all the time refusing gifts until one day, she sees an envelope with her name and knows its pay – solidifying her role as ‘helper’ and further dissolving the friendship. This employer-employee relationship continues after Sylvie’s death when her son keeps Evelyn under his employ and treats her not as Aunt Evelyn but as employee.
Similarly, in ‘Still’, the extent to which birthright predetermines an individual’s life experience is again examined through the portrayal of Kenneth, the young boy Sonia virtually adopts, as she tries to fill the void from her child’s stillbirth.
Like the recurring themes and defining complexities, the book’s title is taken from the repeat appearances of black dogs and the colour yellow. There’s a black dog in ‘Still’ and also in ‘Room 21B’, which tells the menacing story of a UK-born professor who lives in Barbados and takes on a same-sex house guest/lover after retirement. The colour yellow makes more than one appearance in ‘Evelyn’, first as the colour of the ribbons in Sylvie’s comparatively privileged childhood and then as the colour of Sylvie’s son’s shirt, which according to Evelyn, is good for egg yolks or cornmeal or sunflower but for a man’s shirt? “Cuh dear, no.” Yellow also permeates ‘Panama Man’ through the references to yellow fever during the time of canal build-out.
Written by a keen and sympathetic observer of individuals and of society and its constructs, Black Dogs and the Colour Yellow, also examines the jacket phenomenon in the story ‘My Left Hand’, which could easily have been called My Two Daddies. There are many takeaways from this book.
Black Dogs and the Colour Yellow
Peepal Tree Press Leeds, England: 2018
ISBN 13: 9781845234171
Observation: A stimulating read
- Ann-Margaret Lim is a poet and an author. Her collection of poetry, ‘Kingston Buttercup’, was among the Bocas Prize 2017 poetry shortlist. Her books, which include ‘The Festival of Wild Orchid’ are available at Bookophilia, amazon.com, and peepaltreepress.com. Feedback: firstname.lastname@example.org