Clarise Cumberbatch finds herself in America, in New York City, an immigrant from Guyana in search of her wayward husband, Harold. In this, her first novel, Guyanese writer Joan Cambridge takes the reader through a complex oral history of one immigrant woman, telling us of her longing for "home," her experience of the strangeness of a new and completely foreign land, and her loneliness, a constant throughout the novel, even when Clarise is among friends.
The novel is written in the dialect of Guyana, modified to a certain extent. Not unlike the voice of Celie in "The Color Purple," the voice of Clarise Cumberbatch is informed with emotion and passion, wit and a tone of sadness. Clarise's voice is acute--whether she is observing the habits of individuals, comparing the descent into the New York subway to a descent into hell, turning back a pimp, or describing her search for livelihood in the mythic land of promise. With no green card, and Guyanese currency no bank will exchange, she is stranded, scrambling for opportunity, finding little available.
Clarise's situation is poignant, and Cambridge describes it very well indeed, refusing mere victimization for her character, allowing her struggle and growth.
The novel spans a year in Clarise's life, her year in America. She spends the year alternately looking for her husband and for work, and yearning for the "bush" of her native land, its waterfalls and lush growth, its promise of gold to the intrepid and daring individual.
One of the most moving passages in the novel concerns the search for gold and Clarise's dream of this:
"Is a rake.
Is a shovel!
Is a prospecting-knife and a batelle.
Is a file.
Eh-eh . . .
'Is gold, Mavis! These is de things you need to
work gold. Next week? When I get pay? I going
to buy a surkha-sieve. Is gold, Mavis, it better
than de American dollar.' "
Clarise's dream-search for gold connects her to her homeland and signals her realization that she is at sea in America. Her body and her soul need the connection with land and place represented by home.
Clarise's relationships with others during her year in America--save with her dearest friend, Mavis--are glancing. There are the people she meets on the streets and subways; into some hands she presses the likeness of her husband, Harold, in the hopes these new acquaintances will help her find him. She encounters other immigrants, living in terror of chicken hawks, informers for the INS, rooms full of people scrambling for the jobs available to undocumented workers.
In a particularly vivid scene, a party at Mavis' house, Clarise is surrounded by expatriates from Guyana, who discuss South Africa, the Third World, the economic exploitation of their people, the loss of progressive vision. Some of the party guests have sought education in America, but their polished, Westernized style is no match for Clarise, the uneducated country woman. She, meeting a woman from Afghanistan one day in the park, is able to recall the invasion of Grenada as a parallel to the invasion of the woman's own country.
Where the novel falls short is in drawing characters other than Clarise. We do not understand enough about Mavis, for example, and her sudden declaration of passion for Clarise feels as if it comes out of nowhere. Similarly, the last chapter has an unrealistic feel to it, as if the author wanted to finish with her character. Clarise's escape from a life-threatening situation is unconvincing.
But these are really quibbles. Cambridge has given us the story of one immigrant black woman, told for the most part from her viewpoint and in her words, allowing us to experience a woman of passion, longing and intelligence.