December 3, 2019
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Curdella Forbes' novel A Tall History of Sugar is a richly told fable that comes alive in its pages.
Booklist wrote of the book:
"Forbes' novel, rich in metaphors and biblical and fairy-tale allusions, explores the cyclical nature of birth and death, and the overwhelming and terrifying power of love. It is also a forceful critique of colonialism...Born to this complicated heritage, Moshe and Arrienne discover their voices in art and social protest as Jamaica grapples with independence and identity. A fascinating post-colonial blend of romance, social history, and myth."
A Tall History of Sugar is a modern-day fairy tale and love story framed around the history of Jamaica. Starting in the late 1950s, four years before Jamaica’s independence from British rule and ending in ‘the age of Brexit and Donald Trump’, the novel tells the story of Moshe Fisher, a man ‘born without skin’ so that no one is able to tell what race he is. The narrator is Moshe’s soulmate and lover Arrienne Christie, a fiercely rebellious activist who makes it her duty to protect him from the consequences of his strange appearance. The story follows Moshe’s travels through Jamaica, Britain, Europe and back again, in search of place and parentage. The combination of myth, magicality, history and not-quite-happily-ever-after is because I wanted to write a fairy tale that was so true, you would have to believe it was real.
In conversation with A Tall History of Sugar, Bob Marley’s classic posits redemption as rescue, on many levels. Rescue is a recurring theme throughout the book. Rachel, Moshe’s foster-mother, ‘redeems’ Moshe when she saves him as a foundling. The lovers redeem each other from soul-destroying isolation. In the end, love is the redemption from the destiny that the sugar plantation would have imposed, and art (Arrienne’s, Moshe’s, Marley’s) the redemption that rescues their lives from silence and ‘the single story’, the geopolitical stereotype. Marley’s haunting voice, reggae instrumentals and epic lyrics are well suited to the novel.
This Bob Dylan song rendered by British singer Andreya Triana captures something of Arrienne’s yearning, especially during the turbulent year at university when she realized she had come to think of him as a lover while he still thought of her as his ‘twin’.
Moshe almost never speaks his love out loud. But Arrienne can hear him, through their telepathic connection. This song expresses some of what he might say, if he spoke. It conveys a strong sense of ‘placedness’ (centeredness, belonging), and it suggests a crimson-red passion underneath Moshe’s sexual unresponsiveness.
A duet for Arrienne and Moshe’s reconciliation after he returns ‘home’ from Europe.
This almost liturgical classic will bear varying and powerful significance for different listeners. It reminds us how Moshe and Arri’s physical appearance becomes a sort of river or gulf that they and those around them must cross. At the same time it can invoke the larger weight of Jamaica’s colonial and migratory history that circumscribes the love affair.
This song fits with Rachel and Arrienne’s way of traveling through the world—a quality of fearlessness that manifests in their relationship with Moshe. These two astonishing women who nurture a man without losing their selfhood deserve a song for ‘them two’.
This one speaks to Arrienne and Moshe’s obsession with apotheosis/ transcendence/ transformation. It relates to the end of the book where Arrienne tells us she dies into resurrection. This obsession is also characteristic of Tumela Gut, where they grew up, and Jamaica as a whole in the novel.
Forms a bookend with Bob Marley’s song. A political declaration of the right to choose, grounded in a spiritual vision of the world, it encapsulates the sense of integrity, the desire to ‘evaluate [themselves] justly’*, of all the major characters.
*The semi-quotation is from Arthur Miller.
Curdella Forbes and A Tall History of Sugar links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays
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weekly music release lists