Land of Love and Drowning by Tiphanie Yanique begins when the Virgin Islands are on the verge of becoming U.S. and British territories after being under Danish rule. The newly minted American St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix and British Tortola, Anegada are as much central characters as Captain Owen Arthur Bradshaw, his wife Antoinette, and their daughters Eeona and Annette.
The novel spans decades during which eldest daughter, the wild-haired and hypnotically beautiful Eeona continues the struggle to uphold the reputation of the Bradshaw name first started by her mother after the demise of Captain Bradshaw and their upper class way of life. There’s a constant theme of love throughout the book: romantic, parental, sibling and patriotic. The power of love seems to cast a mystical spell on the characters that forces them to keep secrets, have affairs and run to and from each other and the home (the islands) in frustrating ways.
Land of Love and Drowning is strongest when told through the all-knowing collective voices of “the old wives,” who also share island folklore with the telling of the Bradshaw story. The narrative voice includes prim and proper Eeona and wild “Frenchy” Annette. It falters when Jacob, the illegitimate son of Captain Bradshaw passing as a McKenzie, another prominent family on the island, pipes up.
Historical fiction more so than science fiction and fantasy, is one of my favorite ways to be transported to another time and place. In the Author’s Note, Yanique admits to taking some artistic liberties with true events and characters for the sake of story fluidity. We also learn that some of the characters are based on some of her own family members whom she learned about from her grandmother.
I usually shy away from books that have a family tree or geographical map in the front, but really wanted to read this book after seeing the author sit on a panel at the Brooklyn Book Festival. She was also a teacher at The New School, where I attended grad school. While Land of Love and Drowning takes a moment to get going because of the multiple starts and stops of character back stories before they converge into one related story, it’s worth the patience because you get hooked wondering and caring for the characters, all of whom are of tortured souls on separate, yet connected life journeys.