Two Book Reviews: The Girl With the Golden Shoes by Colin Channer

Colin Channer Jamaican authorBook Review: The Girl With The Golden Shoes By Bob Ham

With hundreds of writers, filmmakers and playwrights adding their respective twists on the coming of age story each year, it is amazing that anyone has the time or energy to come up with a new, heretofore unseen view on a character's shaky and often troubled steps towards adulthood.

Yet, with increasing regularity new voices gently float above the din and, thanks to the ever-growing access to the work of artists from even the most remote corners of the globe, a great number of those voices belong to non-Western speakers.

So it is that we American readers have been blessed with Colin Channer, a young writer of Jamaican descent, who acknowledges the archetypes of this kind of story, but adds a tart, sunbaked world view to it which invigorates the tale, giving it an exotic and dangerous spin only hinted by his contemporary peers.

The character that Channer gives us to follow in this story couldn't be more marginalized nor on the outskirts of the society that she was raised in. If being a young black girl living on a small Caribbean island during World War II weren't enough, Estrella Thompson is also not very well-regarded within her fishing village. She was brought there by relatives to stay with her grandparents after her mother died giving birth to her. In a culture rife with superstition and fanciful religious fervor, this marked the girl as an outsider, a status that has been amplified in the ensuing years due to Estrella's headstrong attitude, curiosity and her ability to read.

It is her curiosity that is her undoing within the village, as a chance meeting with a military diver (whom the rest of the children fear is a monster) that coincides with a drop-off in luck for the fishermen is enough to force Estrella out of the village. Although she is angered by her ousting, the decision crystallizes her focus, leaving her only one concrete solution to her bad fortune: she needs to find her way to the town of Seville, buy a pair of shoes and then get a job.

The rest of the novella is taken up with Estrella's journey, an arduous trek filled with unsavory characters and situations, and it is in the latter two-thirds of the novel that Channer's prose truly takes wings. He imbues each step with nods to Estrella's fellow wanderers (Dorothy, Don Quixote, Dante) and packages each page with rich sensory details that put a gentle haze over each scene. As well, Channer is able to move swiftly between the fractured English of Estrella's inner monologue to straightforward narration to the myriad of dialects and languages of each character with an ease that neither confuses nor alienates the reader.

What is especially striking is the way Channer subtly shows the changing spirit of Estrella. She is still as iron-willed and singularly-focused as she is at the beginning, but little shifts in her vocabulary and tone give her even more depth as she moves through the story. By the end of the book, her English is still cracked, but she feels wiser and more assured having been able to mix the knowledge she has gained through her books with what she gained by tactile experience.

Although the book's brevity is to be admired, it is also the book's undoing. The ending feels a little too pat and quickly wrapped up. Although anyone who understands the culture and time period in question knows that Estrella's story is far from over nor will it be a journey free of troubles, still it would have been a much stronger story were that explored or the story ended more ambiguously.

That being said, The Girl With The Golden Shoes, is an otherwise spotless book by a writer of rare talent and voice. With Channer's age and abilities, I doubt we have heard the last of his storytelling and the literary world is better off for it. There are too few voices speaking from the margins as strongly and lovingly as Channer does in this book.

***

Hope in the Unseen

Tossed out of her island village, a girl seeks her destiny on the road

Reviewed by Tina McElroy Ansa

Washington Post: Sunday, August 5, 2007; Page BW07

Estrella Roselyn Maria Eugenia Thompson, the heroine of the short, beautiful novella The Girl with the Golden Shoes, is one of those characters who steal your heart. It seems not exactly correct to call her a character, however. She feels too real, too genuine. She is more like home folks, those friends and relatives you know from the inside out.

In fact, much of Colin Channer's touching story shimmers with truth and authenticity. The Girl With the Golden Shoes is essentially a Caribbean fable that holds a universal vision of self-discovery and resonates with the local patois floating on a soft, salty breeze. It is the story of 14-year-old Estrella, who, in 1942, sets out in her only dress, fleeing her seaside fishing village for the "city," in hopes of work and a pair of shoes. Threatened and abandoned by her family and ostracized by her community, she makes her way alone. The sin for which she must pay is that of seeking the unknown, whether on the pages of a book or in the voice of a stranger from under the sea. Her fellow villagers fear that a six-week run of bad fishing was caused by Estrella's brashness in engaging a scuba diver on the beach. They "felt as if the girl had put them under siege, a sense that if they didn't act, then history would remember them as people who'd watched and waited while their way of life was slowly laid to waste." But, as the exiled Estrella makes her shaky way -- by foot, by bus, by horse, by truck -- readers realize what the villagers did not: An explorer is simply what she is. She can't help herself.

Channer, the Jamaican-American author of two previous novels and a short story collection, conjures up unforgettable images. On the first leg of Estrella's trip, her "stubby, silver bus" crawls "north along the wild Atlantic coast…like a beetle on a trail of gum."

Estrella's story is one of longing, strength, wrong-headedness. And through it all, the reader falls under the sway of a flawed but brave heroine who can be hard as flint or as vulnerable as a newborn. "What did it mean that all her thoughts of fishing hadn't frozen into hate? You have to harden your heart, she told herself. Otherwise, you might go back."

Yearning is a leitmotif in this novella, and Channer hits every note of that theme with heart-wrenching specificity. At one point in her journey, a hungry, lonely Estrella spies a comforting scene:

Across the street she saw the orange light of bottle torches glowing in the stalls. . . . She could also see the silhouettes of dogs and milling people, and smell the garlic marinade in which the cuts of shark were left to soak all day before the old negritas dipped them in the cornmeal batter, turning them to make the grainy mixture cream the meat, which they'd slide into the iron pots that had been used by their grandmothers, and the batter-covered meat would settle in the oily depths where all the salty flavor lurked and gain a brittle shell.

Parts of Estrella's journey are difficult to endure. At the end, the author has readers on their seats in "a whitewalled Buick Century " right along with the heroine, fearful that she is being taken to a fate even worse than she envisioned. Still Channer is such a master that the reader feels safe in his hands.

The Girl with the Golden Shoes is a sparkling gift, the tale of a meager, shoeless, raggedy abandoned Cinderella whose hardships make her all the wiser. "I see for myself now," Estrella muses. "All man is man. All flesh is flesh." ·

Tina McElroy Ansa's fifth novel, Taking After Mudear, will be published in October.

***

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