Jessamine tells the story of Grace Hylton, an African-American, who arrives on the Caribbean island of St. Crescens full of doubts about her husband’s political aspirations, doubts about her marriage and doubts about the wisdom of relocating. Her native-born husband, Julian, has lived most of his adult life in the States but has come back to St. Crescens, determined to pull his country out of the cauldron of corruption, nepotism and crime into which the leading political dynasty has taken it.
An architect by training, Julian buys and restores Jessamine, an old Great House. What the Hyltons don’t know is that Jessamine is home to the ghost of Arabella Adams who lived there as a governess during the late 1800s.
Jessamine is told from the alternating viewpoints of the two women – both foreigners, both married to local men. An old injustice binds them across the century that separates them, but can Grace discover its roots before St. Crescens is plunged into violence and chaos?
Jessamine is a fascinating story that uses alternate POV’s of Arabella and Grace to tell dual stories reflecting the past and present day. Grace moves to the island of St. Crescens to support her husband Julian in his political ambition to become the new Prime Minister. But when she arrives on the island, she is met with hostility from the locals and Julian’s own grandmother. And event though Julian, an accomplished architect, ha renovated the old Jessamine estate, the house still holds traces of the past that prove to haunt Grace. Fueled by her visions of Arabella, Grace embarks on a mission to uncover the identity of the mystery woman and figure out what she wants.
Arabella’s story is probably the most compelling of the two. She comes to Jessamine to act as Governess for the three small Threllfall children. But when she meets and falls in love with Leando Joseph, a Black business owner, she defies convention and marries the man she loves. But Arabella is living in the midst of high racial tensions, an economic downfall, and political unrest. With people who despise her looking to her husband for leadership and direction, the couple is destined for tragedy in such a volatile time.
I love how the author presents the reader with the two different stories and how the past and present end up colliding with each other. And while their personal journies differ, many of the events of the times reflect each other. There is political unrest in both the past and present. Making the atmosphere of St. Crescens strained and dangerous for everyone. Both Arabella and Grace and their families experience threats and cruelty from those who currently hold power, and both ladies are married to intelligent businessmen, determined to make life better for their people.
What I can appreciate most about Jessamine is how the author took real historical events of the Caribbean and used them as a historical basis for her novel. The reflection of real events were expertly weaved into the novel, making it more interesting, and definitely more authentic.
Overall I loved the book. Though I was more captivated by Arabella’s story, I was still fascinated by Grace and the mystery surrounding and connecting both women. I don’t quite know how to classify this book, but regardless, it is an excellent read and a story that will stay with you long after you’ve finished reading.
Eugenia is the author of three books, the novels Dido’s Prize and Just an Affair and the non-fictional, From the Field to the Legislature: A History of Women in the British Virgin Islands. A few of her short stories have been published in The Caribbean Writer and other regional publications and she is also a regular contributor to Experience BVI. (taken from her website). Site | Facebook | Twitter
I had the pleasure of interviewing the author of Jessamine and want to thank her for being here and answering my questions. I really enjoyed the book so I hope the interview will give my readers more insight into the book, and perhaps prompt them to give it a go. Once again, thank you for being here!
1. For those out there who aren’t familiar with you or your work, please tell us about yourself and your body of work.
I’m from the British Virgin Islands which is a very small territory in the northern Caribbean – very close to the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. My first book, From the Field to the Legislature: A History of Women in the Virgin Islands, was based on my master’s thesis for the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill, and was published by Greenwood Press, a publisher of academic works. After that I dusted off a fiction manuscript I’d worked on a decade before, revised it and started looking for a publisher and it was released as Just an Affair.
Years ago, I was in an old church in St. Lucia – the church was redolent with the scent of old wood and incense and that was when the germ of the idea for Jessamine took hold. Then I thought about it, worked it out in mind – who would be the main characters, what setting would I use, etc. I always create a story folder for those ideas that I am really committed to so into that went pictures from travel magazines that looked like the island I was thinking of, news clippings about political corruption and crime, pictures of Great Houses, etc. And the St. Lucian church I’d been in when I got the idea for the story became St. Anne. Obviously, as a Caribbean person I had a lot of that in my head but it helped to flip through the folder and see a visual representation of what was in my head.
I think most people, if they think of the Caribbean’s past, might think of slavery and then of emancipation, but few know what transpired in the islands between that time and now. They wouldn’t realize that the post-emancipation time was a time of great hardship for the former slaves and that the pretty islands with the friendly people they come to visit for a few weeks on vacation went through great upheavals before settling into the richly diverse societies they now are. I wanted to depict those times and show how hard brave people fought so we could have a lot of the freedoms we now take for granted.
I loved all the characters but perhaps Arabella the most because she went through the most difficulties. My own mother died when I was quite young so I can sympathize with her from that perspective and then she was torn from everyone and everything she knew and sent to live in another country when she was only fifteen. I also liked Leando, though. I sort of envisioned him as Dennis Haysbert, one of my favorite actors, and I just really admired his courage.
From the Field was my first book but, since then, I’ve written mostly novels – Just an Affair and the pirate adventure romance, Dido’s Prize. I’m currently working on something very different from all of those and very different from Jessamine – a story about a crack-addicted woman who finds her redemption in an unlikely place, prison. I hope to publish it in October. I’m a huge horror genre fan, I’ve been reading Stephen King my whole life, I think, so I’m working on something along those lines, too. I remember watching The Twilight Zone when I was a child and being scared out my wits by some of the episodes and I’d love to be able to write like that.
6. What is it that you would most like readers to take away from Jessamine or any of your other novels?
Hmm, good question. An understanding of the Caribbean and of Caribbean people that might be new to them. That there’s a lot more to the islands than sun, sea and sand and that, even now, some of the issues of the past still haven’t been completely worked out.
7. Do you have any particular writing ritual or schedule that you stick to when working on a new novel?
I’m an early riser so I like to get working by 8:00 a.m. at the latest. At some point in the morning, I must also have a cup of coffee. Other than that, no ritual except that I’ll usually turn off my phone because a five minute conversation can take me so far out of the story that it might take me half an hour to recover my flow.
Jamaica Kincaid – I love her spare, direct prose. Stephen King who is just an excellent story-teller. Edwidge Danticat, Nalo Hopkinson, Ian Rankin, Walter Mosley, Diana Evans and Jennifer McMahon are some of the others but I read a lot and have many favorites.
Yes. I always advise people who want to write to read a lot and to read widely – read science fiction, read world literature, read thrillers, romances, etc. – every genre has a particular style and its best writers have mastered them.
10. What do you enjoy doing when you’re not writing?
Travel!!! I love traveling!
Filed in: Chick Lit, Interview, Reviews, Women's Fiction Tags: Chick Lit, Eugenia O'Neal, Fiction, Interview, Review