“That future strife/ May be prevented now, the king said in his moment of greatest clarity before he made the fatal mistake of confusing flattery with love.”
King Lear is probably one of my least favourite works by Shakespeare. It is also one which left a great impact. I was only a child when I was introduced to it via a children’s version. It wasn’t the best experience (because, you know, everyone dies) but I knew by the time I finished what sort of a daughter I did not want to be. When I saw Even In Paradise by Elizabeth Nunez on the library shelf, and read in the description that it was a modern day retelling of King Lear, I almost put it back. The cover and the Caribbean setting however, made me bring it home anyway.
Peter Duckworth, though of English ancestry, is a complete Trinidadian. At the beginning of this book, he is preparing to move to Barbados, because he expects to find paradise there. It is here that we meet our narrator Émile, (the black son of Duckworth’s doctor, John Baxter), then 16,and our heroine, Corrine (Cordelia), a sprightly, confident, 12 year old. For Émile, it is love at first sight, and years later when he meets Corrine again, this time in Barbados, he finds that he still is attracted to her. Émile’s best friend Albert, has fallen in love with and is to be engaged to Glynis (Goneril), Corrine’s eldest sister. Her other sister, Rebecca (Regan), has already eloped and married golden boy Douglas. It is at the engagement party when the parallels to King Lear become relevant. Duckworth, having decided to divide his property among his three daughters while still alive, is carried away by the flattery of his two eldest daughters. Feeling snubbed by Corrine however, he declares that she will receive her share of the property (the largest of all) only after his death. This declaration sets into motion a game of greed and jealousy.
The most striking thing about this book is the sense of place. Set in Trinidad, Barbados and Jamaica, this retelling is interwoven with snippets of history and insights into the culture of these places. For someone like me, who has only a vague idea of the history and politics of these regions it was a fascinating read. I had to Google search some things to get into the details, but that was in no way distracting from the story. Nunez does an excellent job of discussing colonialism, slavery, race and class within the framework provided by the Duckworths and their rivalries. In fact, I found these insights more captivating than the story itself.
Émile is a capable narrator, though a bit wishy-washy as a character. I was a bit unimpressed by his hesitation to stand up for his convictions at times, and his occasional (though not often, thankfully!) tendency to mansplain.Glynis is predictably unlikeable. At one point Émile talks about how Glynis is “self-centered but not evil”, her actions are driven by her jealousy of Corrine and her unsatisfied need for her father’s love. However, I did not see this, and Glynis comes across as a purely negative character. Corrine, obviously, is the yang to Glynis’s yin. She is oh-so-perfect in every way, and this becomes a bit disappointing personally as I like my characters with shades of grey. None of the other characters made any real impression on me, personally.
The comparisions to King Lear are almost too close, but Nunez manages to reign this in, making it stand alone. In spite of its slightly flat characterization, the book is a winner. It offers a peek into issues of race and class, but does not become a didactic or heavy. It retains a light, summery feel, making it an ideal beach read.
I borrowed this book from my local library and chose to review it without any request for the same on the part of the publisher/author.
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Similar reads : This is the second retelling of Shakespeare I’ve read this year. The other one is Shylock is My Name , Howard Jacobson’s retelling of The Merchant of Venice.