How The One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones

Set in a resort town called Baxter’s Beach in Barbados, this book centers largely on a girl called Lala, who is pregnant and in an abusive relationship. When her labour starts, she goes looking for help, and ends up knocking on the door of a wealthy home where her husband, co-incidentally, is robbing the owners. Unwittingly, she sets off a chain of events that will effect her, her daughter, her husband, his friend, her grandmother, the couple who live in the house and their neighbour.

I was really drawn to the title and the gorgeous cover of this book. It’s so vibrant and intriguing. The title comes from a warning fairytale that Lala’s grandmother tells her at the start of the book, hoping to discourage her from going out at night and meeting boys. The tale is about a curious, willful sister who loses an arm to monsters who live in Baxter’s local tunnels, while the good, obedient sister stays safe.

I loved the language of this book. In a few words, we get a sense of the voices and rhythm of the characters and of Barbados. It’s not just the descriptions of the buildings and the beach, the difference between the people who holiday there and the local, but phrases like “quick quick” used naturally in a sentence. I love the way the author captures that for us. I immediately had a sense of place.

The world that these characters move in is relentlessly sad and harsh. At the hospital, the staff are unfeeling towards Lala, her granmother can’t really love her, husbands are violent, nice men go to prison. There are a lot of criminals, there are a lot of cold and calculating people in this book. And each chapter seems to have some new story of something bad happening. Child death, rape, violence, incest, murder. While I liked that the plot was always moving forward, it felt a little numbing after a while. The problem is that while each character feels psychologically real, that is, they behave just like an abusive husband, just like an abused wife, just like someone who is surviving by their wits… they don’t feel like individuals. There was too much plot about all the bad things, and not any room for personality. And that personality makes us root for someone. Also, by having tragedy in each chapter, it didn’t feel that real to me. It was just another bad thing happening to hardened people. I needed a little bit more.

So, it’s a lot in that sense, and perhaps if that kind of thing is triggering for you or you’re feeling a little depressed from lockdowns and things, maybe this isn’t for you. I really liked hearing about Barbados and life there from a local, and I think that the author has talent as a writer and understands what makes people tick, which a lot of writers don’t.

Read It If: this is a good debut novel, and I like hearing own voices telling these kinds of stories. It is relentlessly sad and the characters are slightly underdeveloped maybe, but I would think Cherie Jones has something and I hope she keeps writing.

Thank you HBG Canada for the review copy of this book. All opinions are my own honest thoughts.

How The One-Armed Woman Sweeps Her House is out now.

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