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Unburnable: A Novel
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Unburnable: A Novel

3.79 of 5 stars 3.79  ·  rating details  ·  251 ratings  ·  49 reviews
In this riveting narrative of family, betrayal, vengeance, and murder, Lillian Baptiste is willed back to her island home of Dominica to finally settle her past. Haunted by scandal and secrets, Lillian left Dominica when she was fourteen after discovering she was the daughter of Iris, the half-crazy woman whose life was told of in chanté mas songs sung during Carnival: "Ma...more
Hardcover, 304 pages
Published April 11th 2006 by Amistad (first published April 1st 2006)
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karen
there are some problems with this book.(besides a few distracting typos - and i usually don't mind, but these changed meanings too much to be acceptable) it's the same problems that books like the eight and the ghost of hannah mendes suffer from. all of these books split the narrative between a modern-day and a historical plot but the modern plot always suffers and devolves into a stock romance-type plot. it's a shame because the "other" plot is so compelling. but it was really good despite my g...more
Naori
This book was like a cheap romance novel set in the Caribbean. Although there were some interesting sections regarding the tradition of voodoo in the Caribbean, it had little relevance to the plot and was completely ahistorical. Most of the novel was dedicated to developing the useless character of Teddy, the protaganist's love interest, and a senseless reiteration of male privilege. Overall, I was quite disappointed...
Mocha Girl
Wow! I can hardly believe Unburnable is Marie-Elena John's debut because she wrote such a deep, suspenseful novel that had me guessing until the last page. I found it to be perfectly paced, very well written with colorful, smart characters that jumped off the page. I was both entertained and educated by this offering - a rare feat in today's literature.

The story centers on three generations of Dominican women, two of which are infamously captured in local folklore, legend, and indigenous songs....more
Roger DeBlanck
This novel was a struggle for me to finish. The story was engaging enough, but the writing style made this book a tremendous labor of frustration. The narrative follows several generations of a Caribbean family. The main character, Lillian Baptiste, leaves her native island of Dominica for the United States, and over twenty years later she returns to confront the secrets of her past. Her plight is contrasted against the background stories of her grandmother, Matilda, and her mother, Iris. The ch...more
Michael
I highly recommend joining a book club because it challenges you to read books outside your preferred genre and/or comfort zone. I would have never read Unburnable if it wasn't for my work book club. I am glad I read this book. It is an interesting story about three generations of women living or growing up on the island of Dominica. It is hard to believe that this was John's first novel. It is a wonderful exploration of the African Diaspora contrasting, celebrating and critiquing the difference...more
Iejones
Marie-Elena John uses the Caribbean carnival as the stage where native custom, family history, and West African culture collide forever changing the celebration of carnival for the people of Roseau in Dominica. In the freshman novel Unburnable John uses the celebration of carnival and carnival songs to reveal a unique history of West Indians in general while spanning the three generations of one family.
This story weaves together the history of Africans, Caribs, and Americans. The three women of...more
Gayla
Jan 24, 2011 Gayla added it
Shelves: caribbean-lit
I enjoyed the descriptions of Dominica and the historical/cultural background. Even though I knew about much of the history John covered in the novel, the way she wrote about it had me eager to go back and learn more. Especially the parts about Masquerade. Unfortunately, the American boyfriend's character was a bit bare and even embarrassing at times. I had to push to get through those parts of the book to move on to the meaty and captivating historical portions of the story.... which was also w...more
Rebecca
I really liked the beginning and set of up of the storyline. But by the end I was disapointed and exhausted. By the end I was didnt want to hear about the characters anymore.

However I enjoyed the Carribean hsitory and culutre information. Exploitation and mutilation of women, not so much. It seemed as if this story has been created before. The theme of Obeah has been explored in a few books I have read, sometimes its overused nowdays.
Ann-lee
I have a hard time phrasing my opinion of this book. Not the least because my computer just deleted a review I had already written for half an hour. Well, maybe this one will be better :) One can hope.


There was much interesting in the book. The conflict of African religions and Catholicism, the customs, the conflict of identity, the history and the culture(s)... The clash with modern American sensibilities... The characters.
I did not learn much about the history of Caribbean isles in school and...more
Judy
This is a good book to learn about the cultures of the small island of Dominica. The story itself, was so-so, the ending, well, disappointing and kind of abrupt, I thought. However, I was very grateful to find a novel to read for this obscure island.
Kirsten
A riveting story with ideas so strong and interesting that I readily forgave some flaws in the writing. Can't say I understand others' shock at the depictions or disappointment with the 'magical realism'; if anything, I appreciate the purposeful rejection of magical realism for something powerful, tracing a line through broken stories to connect a truth with history. (Not because I don't love magical realism, but because there is merit in any honest challenge.) Likewise I've no problem with the...more
Christina
Where do I start... this book was very complex. Layered deeply with various stories and the history of the Caribbean islands. This novel dealt with "black magic" (Obeah), Catholicism, matriarchal power, love, sex, and forgotten, and lost relatives. Initially I was disappointed in the back and forth that the author chose to write the various stories in this book. She flipped flopped back and forth through out this book talking about the characters, the history that happened, and how everything fi...more
Solange
**Tiny SPOILER ALERT** I really wanted to love this book. It was recommended by a friend who knows that I enjoy stories about the Caribbean and magical realism. In that respect, the book definitely delivered. However, in general, I found that the book was poorly executed..characters were not fully developed, and it was not until Lillian returns to Dominica (about 100 pages into the story) do we get some idea as to who she is...I had no connection to the character and she remained just that for t...more
Deb
Lillian holds her sanity together through a conscious, minute-by-minute effort. She is an educated, successful woman who is haunted by her family history. Despite the best efforts of her adoptive mother, Lillian has discovered the history of her original family; her grandmother was hanged for murder, and her mother was a prostitute who lured Lillian's father to her bed to take revenge upon his family. after 20 years away, Lillian decides to return to the island of Domenica to confront the demons...more
Revae
A great debut novel! There were a lot of descriptions and background in the beginning. For me, the plot didn't get going until about chapter 11. Since I have an undergraduate degree in history, I appreciated the historical connections and foundations in African tradition. The book touches on traditions carried to the Carribean by African slaves and how hard they fought to maintain their culture. It made me think about as an African-American in the United States, the cultural tradtions and connce...more
Lola
There is something about this story that just sends a chill down my spine. It's one of those tragic life stories that the ending leaves you unsettled, and chanting "Damn, if only...why Marie-Elena John, why?" As if the main character were an old acquaintance whose life story you just heard. Even weeks after finishing it, i still cannot say that i completely hate the abruptness of the concluding paragraphs, or whether Lillian's reasoning and actions kept the plot that much more honest, gritty, ra...more
Rashida
I really like Mocha Girl's review. And I think that I would love the book that her review is describing. But, I DO think that her review is a true telling of what Unburnable is about. So, why doesn't this work for me? I think it has to do with execution. A good 3/4 of the novel is dedicated to the lead up to the great mystery and spends entirely too much on the blossoming of the relationship between the protagonist and the "love interest" (usefulness interest?). The meaty good stuff is saved fo...more
Eugenia O'Neal
Decades ago, in the 1940s, a woman by the name of Matilda was hung for murder on the lush, green island of Dominica. Her story became the stuff of chante mas songs, songs sung during the pre-Lenten Masquerade and known to everyone.

Now, her grand-daughter, born in Dominica but partially raised in the United States, is back to discover the real story behind Matilda’s execution. Was Matilda really an Obeah woman with the power to heal as well as to kill? How did Matilda’s daughter, Lillian’s own m...more
Joana
Quite possibly one of the best books I've read in quite some time. This book was a history lesson and a heart rending tale all wrapped up in one. The author explored the history and customs of the island of Dominica (and the rest of the Caribbean by extension).

One girl's struggle to understand her heritage has left her scarred for life. Her tale is told in the historical songs of the island. She is ostracised and considered crazy as a result of the mystery surrounding her grandmother's life and...more
Leandra Cate
Well, I'd like to have something good to say about this novel. I appreciate that it acknowledges the cultural diversity of the African diaspora but I don't feel like I learned much in the way of history or cultural analysis through this book. The characters were not at all well constructed and there were several absurd scenes that made me cringe to read (the Matilda-Mary Alice nipple slap comes to mind). Yikes - phony sex scenes right out of a Harlequin. I don't know -- maybe the author was tryi...more
Delicious Strawberry
I learned a few new things about Carib culture in this book, and I always love it when a book teaches me a few things! :D The shifting storylines between Lillian and her mother/grandmother were easy enough to follow and entertaining as bits of the whole story are revealed.

Some people here say they don't like the ending or found it confusing. Personally, I feel that a concrete and happy ending would have spoiled the story. Legends and magic were a big part of this story, and while I do feel that...more
Arielle
This novel is a must read. I loved it, one of my favorites hands down. I was able to connect well to the characters mainly because Im haitian and a lot of the phrases were basically our native language. The main character Lillian was so lost and I felt every emotion and really believed i was right there during both time sequences. The story had mainly a lot of .BLACK HISTORY FAMILY BETRAYAL VENGEANCE AND MURDER Which makes any story gripping and juicy. But what I loved the most was the story of...more
Kathryn
I found this book oddly compelling, although parts were disturbing I was always drawn back into the story. It is the story of a woman searching for the truth in her past. It combines West Indian history, African culture, with an American outlook.
Julianna
The story was great how it wove present and past. The only meh part is when the writer tried to write in the voice of the Black American male. It felt out of sync.
Rhiannon
Tells the story of Lillian, who feels compelled to visit her home island of Dominica, after spending her entire adult life in the States, to try to prove to herself that her grandmother (who she never met) was not a murderer, though she was executed as one. If that sounds complex, that's because it is - this was a really dense, layered novel, and I'm still working through it in my brain a week after finishing it.

There's a lot here about various African Diaspora cultures and the role of women the...more
Janine Mendes-franco
This book came on my radar just after I had visited Dominica for the first time. I was so fascinated by "The Nature Island" that I couldn't wait to get my hands on the novel. I loved it! John's writing is so fluid that despite the meandering paths the narrative often took, I always felt like I was being carried forward on this strange, exotic journey. I was never bored - with the characters, the descriptions of the island, or the storyline. I found the ending predictable and a tad disappointing,...more
Holly
I don't like to toss the phrase "tour de force" around, but this book truly meets that description. The characters are compelling and the historical/cultural/sociological detail are meticulous and completely absorbing. I could SEE this story in my mind's eye. I read it after meeting the author at a book festival, otherwise I might never have heard of it.

The term "magical realism" comes to mind, with an emphasis on realism. I read this straight through one night, no breaks.
Mairi
Split between post WWII Dominica and contemporary Dominica and Washington DC, the story follows Lillian through a discovery of her past, her mother, her grandmother and the tales that were built around her history but from which she was carefully sheltered through her youth. Magic, family, vengeance, murder, misunderstanding, culture clash. Richly told and enticingly layered, I enjoyed this very much.
Maria
The novel is compelling and original. Despite the ending which seems almost akin to an old-style deus ex machina, it defies such easy expectations and breaks away from the cliches of the Caribbean. It is a nice counterpoint to such writers as, who have covered the territory of Dominica, Rhys and Shand-Allfrey. John is Antiguan but writes the island as if she were a local.
Kierra J,
I started this book over about four different times. This time I pushed through it and I can conclusively say I'm not really a fan of it. The cultural inclusions were the most interesting (and shocking) elements of this book. I always try to give books a chance but I think that once is enough to read this.
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Marie-Elena John is a Caribbean writer.

She was born and raised in Antigua and is a former development specialist of the African Development Foundation, the World Council of Churches’ Program to Combat Racism, and Global Rights (formerly the International Human Rights Law Group), where she worked in support of the pro-democracy movement in Nigeria and in the Democratic Republic of Congo. She is kno...more
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“His soul,' she would say, 'picked mine up and we flew.' And to those who gave her a disbelieving look, she would insist. 'Have you never touched someone and felt them? Felt what was inside of their body?' Only a few would know what she was talking about.” 11 likes
“One should never blame gods, he believed, for the use to which human beings put them.” 0 likes
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