Book Review:Somerset Grove: A masterful portrayal of twisted lives
Dr Glenville Ashby Reviewer
Title: Somerset Grove
Author: Dionne Peart
Publisher: Clarendon Books
Reviewer: Dr Glenville Ashby
Somerset Grove reads like a dramatic media production with a sure measure of suspense and Sophoclean irony. Dionne Peart has penned an authentic novel that oozes with existentialism and the vicissitudes that fate throws our way. Peart is gifted, unquestionably.
She directs a stage where her characters perform to the hilt. Remarkably, she engineers intrigue on a dime. Her timing and rhythm are perfect. At the right junctures, key questions are raised. Peart holds her hand and the reader waits with bated breath. Will Angelique's love interest leave upon hearing that she is married? Will Carmen finally see her father, Clifton, as she waits and waits for his return? What secret is hidden inside the mansion that houses the influential Chambers family?
Peart is quite good. There is no single protagonist. Every character is sharply defined and can single-handedly epitomise the thematic underbelly of this fine artistic work. Ruby, Angelique and Carmen - three generations of the Wright family play their roles with ease and assurance - all locked stepped in a psychological maze that deftly conceals personal angst and self-loathing.
Somerset Grove is less about female "populism" and gender equality, and more about twisted identities and a society riddled with prejudice, classism and shadism. There is seemingly a vexing fixation on colour, hues of skin and hair texture, all adding to the vacuous lifestyle at Somerset, courtesy of a colonial past bequeathed to a duped society. She writes: "Only two girls ... befriended Ruby during her school years ... their father was an Englishman ... and their mother was a petite Jamaican with a nut-brown skin tone. The twins had complexions that reminded Ruby of her morning tea after the cream had been added."
One can argue that Angelique's powerful, almost domineering personality can serve as a modern-day template for women still cloaked in traditionalism. But even the most unbridled feminist will ponder before lending support to a character that spirals into a human vacuum, driven by materialism, while exploiting every gullible male.
In one exchange with her callous and disconnected husband, Dennis, the reader will side with Angelique. "I need some money," she demands. "What happened to the money I gave you three days ago?" he retorts ... He holds out the money towards her and says, "Don't spend it all," followed by Angelique's "Don't tell me what to do."
But soon, every "give me" moment with male interests is a reminder that Angelique is no poster child for women's rights; neither are any of Peart's characters. Her brashness and peacock-like stride through the Montego Bay airport hides deep-rooted scars. Hers is a life that is baptised in betrayal, courtesy of a philandering husband. Her overbearing mother, herself impregnated, jilted and betrayed at a sophomoric age, mentally preys on her daughter.
The pattern of loneliness and longing never lets up as Angelique's daughter, Carmen, is uprooted from her home in Jamaica only to relive that emptiness in Canada, where the stage is set, and the plot shifts to culture shock and the encumbrances faced by immigrants. But all this pales to the internal void that claims the characters.
In varying ways, Somerset Grove is a laboratory that explores inter-generational dissonance and its ability to overwhelm the individual will. Peart proves a worthy clinician and an inadvertent advocate for Jungian archetypes. The lives of Ruby, Angelique and Carmen mirror each other. They intertwined leaving little air for personal growth. Peart's characters crave validation through the chimera of fancy houses, furniture, homes and social etiquette. It is a social mask that spawns deception and delusions.
Angelique's in-laws, the Chambers, are emotionally crippled by an affluent life coated with half-truths and duplicity.
"To the world, they were the envied perfect couple, but in private, they merely tolerated each other, a fact not lost on their only child, Clifton, whose rebellion over conformity, thumbs his nose at his parents' notion of success and happiness."
relationships of convenience
This is a play that tosses love unto a garbage dump and replaces it with relationships of convenience. In a peculiar way, the dysfunctional and annoying Dahlia who surrenders whatever pride is left chasing after a "bad buoy," is still a sympathetic figure. She is candid, even uncouth, but in a very real and down-to-earth way. That much cannot be said of the rest of Somerset Grove's chorus line. But Carmen, still young in a world shaped by the new zeitgeist of girl power, may just break the mould that has emotionally destroyed the main women in her life. She could surmount barriers and emerge from the emotional ashes that surround her. But can she? And will Angelique's manipulative dance with men lead to unspeakable tragedy? Or will there ever be a sliver of human triumph in this wrenching tale?
Peart tugs away at the reader's emotions unremittingly. You can be an Angelique, a Ruby, a Clifton or a Dahlia, withering away slowly. What a frightening thought.
In the end, this literary serving will make you rethink the coveted doyenne-like lifestyle. Moreover, it will leave you second-guessing your own relationships, while taking a hard look at yourself.
Rating: Highly recommended