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Reader Reviews from Amazon: 2007-02-21
  • A new Caribbean Classic, October 4, 2006
    Reviewer: Paula E. David (St. Vincent and the Grenadines) - See all my reviews

    This novel is destined for "Caribbean Classic" status.

    While I am mindful that many writers hate being "compared" and although I concede that the literary styles, politics and and subject matters of the two novels are vastly different in many respects, there is a compelling case for comparing "Unburnable" with Jean Rhys' "Wide Sargasso Sea".

    One obvious similarity is that both novels are set in Dominica (there must really be something magical about about that little rock); another is that both novels were authored by Caribbean women. The most important similarity, however, is that both authors insist that the Caribbean woman's (and by extension the Caribbean peoples') right to dignity must be acknowledged. Both authors are bellicose in their refusal to accept the self hatred which is part and parcel of the legacy of colonialism.

    Alienation is an important theme in both novels. Antoinette in Wide Sargasso Sea and Lillian in Unburnable are women ill at ease in their environments, uncomfortable in her own skins, who nevertheless, fight tooth and nail to assert their right "to be".

    Both novelists challenge the still prevailing view of polite Caribbean society that "obeah is wicked and its practitioners are charlatans; praise Jesus that our colonial masters liberated us with christianity". Christophine in Wide Sargasso Sea and Matilda in Unburnable are both healers and protectors; superheroines a la Wonder Woman, Mighty Isis and Xena Warrior Princess. They right wrongs, punish evil and defend the downtrodden. They are the christian god in earthly female form, with the appealing bonus of being strikingly beautiful. (An interesting aside: obeah is still illegal in most independent Caribbean states. In this very year there was a prosecution in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines for "attempting to pervert the course of justice through the use of obeah". The magistrate agreed with the argument of counsel for the defendant that the charge was too absurd to be maintained and the case was dismissed on a no case submission).

    The question which arises is, why are there such startling thematic similarities between a novel penned in the early 20th century by a white woman, born in colonial Dominica and one written at the dawn of the 21st Century by a black woman, a product of the Post-Independence Caribbean? Is the answer simply that the legacy of five hundred years of colonialism cannot be undone in under a century? How far does the truism of the universality of the human experience apply?

    But I intended to discuss "Unburnable". Marie-Elena John is a natural story teller. Like all the other readers, I could not put the book down because the story was so gripping. What facinated me is that she manages to weave in discussions on gender relations, feminism, Caribbean nationalism, Pan-Africanism, the nature of faith, the nature of bigotry, Caribbean class structure and many other "heavy" themes without making the story suffer; without boring the reader to death with self conscious diatribe.

    Although I am somewhat handicapped in the arena of making predictions (all the good obeah women having been driven underground by this year's prosecution and, therefore, unavailable to offer assistance) I will venture this; Unburnable will appear on the book lists of CXC, CAPE and UWI's degree programmes in English in a very short time.

    *****

    Not a Fluff Read!, January 14, 2007
    Reviewer: C. Lacy "Jazzy Bell" (austin, tx United States) - See all my reviews

    I have been blessed enough in the last week to read not one but TWO great books this one being the greater. I will admit I wasn't wrapped up in the book by page two but by page ten I was all caught up in this story. Marie-Elena John is an EXCELLENT story teller. Her words are beautiful and her descriptions come off the page so effortlessly. I could've easily believed this was her third novel instead of her first. I laughed, I cried and I called all my friends and advised them to please read this book. I did not know anything about Dominica before picking up this novel and now I cannot learn enough. This book intrigued me to no end and I cannot wait to read future publishings from Marie-Elena John. This story is not in the least predictable and her knowledge on the subject matter is outstanding! If you are looking for a mind challenging novel that will shock and educate you at the same time then look no further.

    *****

    Must Read!, July 16, 2006
    Reviewer: Huguette Njemanze (Manila) - See all my reviews

    I loved this book! the author has written a masterpiece, a work of fiction that has been superbly researched to reveal facts that have a basis in history. I loved the writing style and indeed after reading this book, I was moved to do some lay research on the Island of Dominica and it's history.

    Marie-Elena has written not just a story about a woman searching for her roots, this book has to be read carefully and with full concentration to grasp the voice within that is speaking to you, not hard to do as the story grips you from the first page! It is a voice telling you about a quest for freedom, freedom from the chains that have bound a people from the time of slavery and continue to bind them in different ways.

    The three main female characters in the book, Mathilda, Iris and Lillian, are all in their own way seeking to break free from the chains of a history that has been thrust upon them and each in their own way, in the end, manage to escape.

    To say anything more would be to take away from each readers own ability to truly feel the power of the writting within this book.

    Marie-Elena John has written a superb book, it is a must read by any one from the African Diaspora and indeed by anyone who has an interest or wants to know more.

    "Unburnable" is a major contribution to the study of the impact of slavery on the culture in the Caribean Islands. This book should have a space on the shelves in all institutions of higher learning were African and Carribean studies are taught.

    "Unburnable" is unputdownable, it is a must read!!

    Three cheers to this writer! I look forward to reading more of her work.

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    8 of 8 people found the following review helpful:

    A five-star experience, June 15, 2006
    Reviewer: JayBee (Miami, Florida United States) - See all my reviews
    For a long time, I've been consistently disappointed with the stuff that's being put out there by Black writers. With only a few exceptions, the publishing houses seem to be pushing little apart from Street Lit and Baby Mama Drama kinds of books. So when I heard the buzz in the publishing world about Unburnable, I made a point of buying it. The best way I can think of describing this book is a Caribbean version of Alex Haley's Roots, except that it also has elements of a mystery, a love story (actually, three love stories), a detective whodunit, a historical novel, an exploration of religion, a cliff-hanger, and straight up smart, strong writing. The author doesn't shy away from sexuality (you only have to read the first page to realize that this book deals head-on with sexuality); however, the sex in the book is not gratuitous, it serves to elaborate the author's many themes - rigid class and color distinctions, for example, and how women's sexuality and child-bearing capacity is controlled to maintain class structure.

    There are also a few scenes of surprising violence, too, written in such a way as to stun the reader, especially the female-on-female violence. That particular scene, which is referred to in reviews as the Coke-bottle rape, is just amazing in its ability to encompass the nature of the class structure of the day; and it also set off a chain of reactions that symbolized the beginning of the end for the light-skinned dominant class of that time in the Caribbean.

    I would call this book a "Diaspora Novel" because while the majority of the action is set in the Caribbean (both in present time and in the mid-1900s), it also draws on the African-American experiences, the Caribbean-American immigrant experience, and, best of all, the underlying African heritage of former slaves in the Diaspora. To say any more would be to give too much away, because the answers to the "mysteries" of Unburnable - what is Lillian's past? Why is she tormented by it? Was her mother really a madwoman? Was her grandmother really a murderer? What really happened in her grandmother's remote village over fifty years earlier? -- are only all fully revealed at the end of the novel, and I found the end to be fitting and beautiful; again, to say more would be to say too much.

    The one thing I wished for in this novel was a fuller development of the male character, the African-American public intellectual, Teddy Morgan. He underwent a transformation from a self-absorbed climber to a man who responded to the effect of selflessly loving another and giving in to that love, and I would have been interested in more about his background, especially his rise to fame around the Central Park Jogger case.

    I read a review of Unburnable in Essence saying that this author will be a major new voice in fiction. I agree fully and look forward to her next book. In the meantime, I know for sure that I'll read Unburnable at least one more time, not only to savor being so fully immersed in the experience, but because it's the kind of book where there's so much under the surface that each re-read will bring fresh things to light.


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    4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:

    A True Masterpiece!!!, June 11, 2006
    Reviewer: avid reader (usa) - See all my reviews
    Whilst traveling from our home in Texas to our favorite vacation spot in the Caribbean, Jumby Bay, Antigua, I ran across "Unburnable" on the cover of the Caribbean Star airline magazine. After reading the book's review, I decided to purchase the book from Antigua's local bookstore.
    On the ferry ride back to our hotel, I began my plunge into an unexpected ride. From the first page the author took me from standing still to terminal velocity. The author describes each character and setting with such detail I felt as though I was in the picture.
    The characters are people you can touch and feel. Yet the novel didn't only have fascinating people; the plot was beautifully woven to pull you in and hold you all the way. The author structured the novel so that the end of each chapter leaves you in suspense and wanting more, and boy does the reader get more! Each ensuing chapter continuously brings more intringe and more suspense -- until the unexpected crescendo. I was blown away.
    I am truly excited by this author's craft and style. I cannot wait for her next book!!!
    However, I would only recommend this book to people who have time to read from start to finish, otherwise you will probably end up using a day of sick-leave to finish the ride.

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    Literally a "Cliff-Hanger", June 7, 2006
    Reviewer: Lover and reader of all things written "jagbybirth" (New Orleans) - See all my reviews
    I read this book while on vacation in Brazil. It was hard for me to get into at first, because I needed more concentration to keep up than I reguarly do with my vacation reading. But once I got used to the switching between the grandmother, mother, and daughter's stories, it began to move swiftly for me. The end was predictable and a little disappointing, but all in all it was an intriguing and thought provoking read. I look forward to the author's future writings.

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    5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:

    A resilient, unburnable soul , June 2, 2006
    Reviewer: The RAWSISTAZ Reviewers (RAWSISTAZ.com) - See all my reviews
    UNBURNABLE, the debut novel by Marie-Elena John, is the tale of Lillian Baptiste and her quest to learn her family's true history. Although her mother, Iris, and grandmother, Matilda, are the source of legend and folklore in their Dominican community, her adopted mother, Icilma, protects Lillian from knowing these women are a part of her lineage. But at the age of 14, Lillian learns the awful truth that the infamous Iris in the chante` mas songs is her biological mother. She knows the meaning of the songs and the knowledge of this being her legacy drives her to run away from home. She is later found at Iris' grave with her wrist slit. She is then sent to her aunt in America to be sheltered from her past.

    Distant emotionally and a loner, Lillian is not comfortable in her skin. Haunted by visions and voices in her head, she questions whether it is her mental state or her grandmother's spirit from the grave. Matilda is said to have claimed responsibility for the devastating massacre that occurred in their quiet, secluded village of Up There, Noah. Believing her grandmother is innocent of this heinous crime, Lillian returns to her native Dominica with her boyfriend, Teddy in tow. Will the secrets she uncovers be enough to quell the unrest in her soul?

    Beautifully written, UNBURNABLE grabs the reader from the first page. The resplendent prose is truly impressive for a first time author. John was able to switch from modern times to the era of the 1940s and 1950s effortlessly. There were moments in the book where the author provides too much information and took the story down paths that seem to take the book off course. Another discretion I found was when they were seeking witnesses for the trial, all were said to be over a hundred years old but Lillian's godmother, who testified at the trial, was in her seventies. This infraction should have been caught during the editing process. Other than that, I would suggest you pick up UNBURNABLE to experience this new author's exquisite style of writing and to learn of the rich African and Caribbean history she shares.

    Reviewed by Paula Henderson
    of The RAWSISTAZ Reviewers


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    5 of 6 people found the following review helpful:

    A definite page turner, May 20, 2006
    Reviewer: Gilda Alexander (Antigua, West Indies) - See all my reviews

    As a Dominican who now lives in Antigua, this book was a captivating read for me.
    It is a well known fact that the more scandalous village incidents/happenings were captured in history in the form of carnival songs and thus passed from generation to generation. As this story unraveled it left me digging through stories told by my Grandmother and Mother when I was growing up, to see if any of those are reflected in this book.
    I usually get fully hooked on a book about half way to three quarters depending on the book, but this one grabbed my attention from much earlier. I'm ashamed to say I struggled for two hours to put the book down so I could get to an appointment, and just couldn't seem to tear my eyes away long enough to shut it. The first few words of the next chapter seemed to call out that if I just read a little more, then I would have reached a good point to close the book. I was wrong on all counts. It is a page turner. I finally gave up, made myself comfortable and read to the end. The appointment was postponed.
    Some of the expressions on the first few pages were a bit shocking to me, but a few chapters in, and the book flows seamlessly. After reading it a second time, I am still not happy with the ending. It was a bit abrupt and left me devastated. Thankfully the story line is intriguing enough to more than make up for this slight shortcoming.
    This novel is a must read for the `Caribbean Curious' and especially Dominicans. I look forward to the next book by this talented writer.


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