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Unburnable

3.77  ·  Rating Details  ·  324 Ratings  ·  60 Reviews
Haunted by scandal and secrets, Lillian Baptiste fled 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—songs about a village on a mountaintop littered with secrets, masquerades that supposedly fly and wreak havoc, and a man who suddenly and mysteriously droppe ...more
Paperback, 304 pages
Published April 24th 2007 by Amistad (first published April 1st 2006)
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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 1,106)
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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
Mocha Girl
Oct 11, 2009 Mocha Girl rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Naori
Feb 08, 2008 Naori rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
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...
Michael
Jul 09, 2014 Michael rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Dec 22, 2008 Iejones rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Roger DeBlanck
Aug 10, 2015 Roger DeBlanck rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction
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
Lyann
May 01, 2015 Lyann rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
It was easy for me to identify with the plot of this novel as a young Dominican woman ;cudos to the author. However in my opinion if one did not grow up on this Island it would have carried as much substance to them as it did for me. The attitudes of each character was what struck me the most, typical Dominican ignorant slurs, gossiping and stereotyping. This book brought up the issue of class on the Island, the whole aspect of branding based on the surname in which you carry. It reminded me of ...more
Revae
Oct 25, 2010 Revae rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Gayla
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
Mitch
Mar 20, 2015 Mitch rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: literary-fiction
This is a difficult book to review. I feel certain that it's better than the average read, but what exactly to say about it afterwards?

Currently I am living on the island of Dominica, where the story takes place, and I was told that it would help me understand the culture of the people here. That set up a framework for reading it, of course.

The novel is structured so that the lives of three women are intertwined; those of a grandmother, a mother and a daughter. The latter is suffering from her t
...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.
Maria
Nov 29, 2009 Maria rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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.
Ann-lee
Jan 22, 2014 Ann-lee rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-2014
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.
Jill
Sep 20, 2008 Jill rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Fascinating history of the African presence in Dominica. I think a rare look at an island not too many people know much about and culture.
Blythe
Mar 23, 2016 Blythe rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2016
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
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
Aug 21, 2010 Deb rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: women, fiction
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
Lola
Jan 21, 2009 Lola rated it really liked it
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
Aug 22, 2012 Eugenia O'Neal rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Mar 13, 2012 Joana rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: caribbean
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
Oct 05, 2013 Leandra Cate rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
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
Kirsten
Apr 11, 2015 Kirsten rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: post-colonial, litlit
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
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
Matt
Dec 05, 2015 Matt rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
All in all the book was pretty interesting. The three stares are because I think the ending was a little easy but then again, I'm not sure how I would have ended it. So grain of salt as with everything.
Arielle
Jan 16, 2013 Arielle rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Rita
Apr 04, 2015 Rita rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Interesting for historical characters in Dominica in the 21st century. Turns in to a bit of a "who done it" towards the end, with one pretty unlikable male character. The female lineage is rich and interesting.
RUSA CODES
This title was a Listen-Alike for the 2016 Listen List. For a complete list of 2016 winners and listen-alikes, please visit http://www.ala.org/rusa/awards/listen....
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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
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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.” 12 likes
“That was just the means by which he would be totally and constantly surrounded by Black people; and it was the means by which they would all know his name.” 0 likes
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