World Literature Today
By Jim Hannan, University of Chicago

In Robert Antoni’s second novel, Blessed Is the Fruit, he remarks that an open bottle of rnedicinal Limeachol exudes ‘the fragrance of West Indian memory.” Writing in the voices of two women differentiated by color and class, Antoni uses individual and collective memory to build bridges that cross, but don’t suppress, historical and cultural divisions in the Caribbean. Although Antoni borrows heavily from realism – he saturates the novel with precise detail, the luminous cadences of the spoken Creole voice, and an acute awareness of the body’s susceptibility to desire and violence – he does not reproduce reality. Antoni shows instead how the novel reconstitutes reality, intervening imaginatively between the world as we think we know it and as we think it could be. Antoni’s speaking voices never embody a stable; essential subject Instead, the immateriality of the fragrance of memory helps Antoni envision a performative, indeterminable; redemptive Caribbean.

Antoni halves Blessed Is the Fruit elegantly arid with exacting formal innovation between the Creole voices of Velma Bootman, a rural, sexually mistreated, persevering black housekeeper; and her employer, Lilla Grandsol, the mostly white; not particularly affluent, obsessively reclusive owner of a decaying estate house: Impressively building a narrative simultaneously claustrophobic-compulsive repetition creates a dense thematic interiority aptly reflecting Lilla’s confinement indoors and expansively well attuned to social and economic circumstances, Antoni revisits a problem central to works such as Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea and Michelle Cliff s Abeng. Concurrently part of, yet estranged from, the cultural and social history of the Caribbean, Lilla confronts the dislocating paradox of being white and West Indian by identifying psychologically and erotically with “my, opposite, my twin sister.” She finds her other m her adolescent companion, Dulcianne (“her beautiful skin-golden; rich like creamed coffee”) and in Vel, whom Lilla sees as an adult substitute for Dulcianne.

In Rhys and Cliff, white Creole girls try to situate themselves in the Caribbean by crossing socially imposed divisions of race and class, but for these writers, cross cultural identification remains an elusive, problematic desire. Antoni, however, in a striking formal innovation, breaks through these barriers. In the center of Blessed Is the Fruit, Vel and Lilla speak in conjunction, one voice alternating with the other, line by line. They seek, in the birth of Vel’s child; a transformation.

I say let us dream now of our two races black and white I say let we dream now of two peoples white and black

together … birth shattering this invincible glass pane betogether … birth swallowing this invisible glass pain be

tween we forever . . .two peopies two language two race to cleave together

tween us forever … two people of two languages two races brought together.

Here is Antoni’s capacious vision, in which personal and historical experiences are repeated and re-created, ‘and in which difference facilitates connection; not dissociation.

Antoni’s faith in the Caribbean as a continual process in which memory rectifies iniquity deserves wide readership and serious critical study. But Blessed Is the Fruit is not flawless. Occasionally; thematic repetition and exorbitant italicization become stylistic burdens. A weightier problem concerns the fate of Lilla’s initial object of identification, Dulcianne. Antoni relates obliquely that Dulcianne, whose English father is also Lilla’s has become pregnant at fifteen by their father and left the Caribbean. Dulcianne’s subject position poor, colored, dependent, makes her vulnerable to her father’s predation in a way that Lilla is not. This vulnerability, far from accidental, occupies the heart of the troubling history of dominance and violence that Antoni would redress Margmahzed m this otherwise voluble novel, Dulcianne’s story haunts the cross-cultural connections Antoni so compellingly celebrates.

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