Mocha Girl's Reviews > Unburnable: A Novel

Unburnable by Marie-Elena John
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's review
Oct 11, 09

bookshelves: diasporic-fiction
Read in April, 2006

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. Matilda, a proud, majestic African woman rumored to dabble in Obeah was publicly tried and hanged for murder after she confessed in police custody. Iris, Matilda's daughter, was a beautiful prostitute known for her voracious sexual appetite, disreputable past and questionable mental health. Lillian, Iris's daughter, was raised by her stepmother after Iris's untimely death. Lillian eventually moves to the United States to live with an aunt in order to shield her from her foremother's legacy. We learn quickly that the proverbial fruit does not fall far from the tree. After years of self-suppression, Lillian's mental instability manifests to the point where she now has difficulty blocking the painful memories. Fueled by inner voices and haunting flashbacks, she decides to return back to Dominica to learn the truth surrounding her family. She engages Teddy, a renowned attorney, collegiate confidante (and soon to be lover), who is basking in the afterglow of a sensationalized legal case where he successfully disproves a self-confession against tumultuous odds. Lillian sensing her grandmother's innocence, asks Teddy to join her in Dominica to re-investigate Matilda's 1940's era confession to mass murder. What ensues is a loaded history of dark secrets, shocking scandal, and a cover-up that permeates all levels of class, religion and the biased politics of the day.

At the very core of the story, the author captures the essence of the African Diaspora. The complexities, struggles, and compromises surrounding the blending of races, cultures and faiths are evident in the trials and tribulations of all three women in both current and historical eras. There are even subtle observations and theories regarding African American and African Caribbean cultures which explain the mindsets of the key characters. Additionally, the author weaves a great deal of Dominican history throughout the novel, done with such care that the lessons are not overbearing, but essential to understanding the motivation and principles of key characters that eventually lead to the mystery's resolution. I loved the transition between eras - the flashbacks to Matilda and Lillian's periods were smooth and blended evenly with the modern day episodes between Lillian and Teddy. This is a great debut and I am looking forward to this author's next body of work.
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