Book Cover

Lester’s (Marvels, 2018, etc.) first novel, set in Jamaica in the 18th
century, reveals that paradise can be a mixed bag.

In 1762, plucky Martha Grant is
offered a proposal of marriage by her cousin, Henry Mason, a Jamaican
planter. She’s finding herself adrift after the death of her own true
love, and fearing spinsterhood, she accepts Henry’s offer. Now she’s ready
to fall in love with her new home of Jamaica, and the rest of the book mostly
consists of her letters home to England and entries from her
diary. Compared to his wastrel brother Jonas, Henry initially seems to be a
good man, but readers quickly learn that he’s a tyrannical, arrogant,
self-centered monster. Nonetheless, Martha is determined to make the best of
it. Then Henry impregnates his half sister Pearl, whose mother is an
African slave. In an elaborate ruse, it’s made to seem that the offspring,
Peter, is actually Martha’s child. Things become particularly insufferable
for Martha when Jonas dies and his widow, the outlandishly crude Antoinetta, comes
to live with the Masons. This is Lester’s first novel, but she’s a
much-published writer of biographies and histories, and it shows. Martha
is a wonderfully well-rounded character—a romantic and an idealist but not at
all naïve; she ekes out small victories with the brutish Henry and always
leaves her surroundings just a tad better than how she found them. Lester
also effectively shows how the Jamaican settlers have the trappings of
civilization—such as a Governor’s Ball and expensive finery—but at bottom, they’re
revealed to be ruthless materialists and exploiters. The childish and
grasping Antoinetta—representing the worst of the colonial infestation—strikingly
contrasts with the beautiful, childlike Pearl, a happy and generous local.
Interspersed are snarky poems, presumably from Martha’s witty imagination, which
skewer the society’s pretensions and its matrons’ cattiness in a kind of
off-key Greek chorus.

A historical novel with an exotic
locale, well-wrought historical details, tidbits about flora and fauna, and
wonderful characters.

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