Cut her wezand…

Posted on August 19, 2012


When yuh en’ got horse, ride cow – Bajan proverb

Photo by Andrea_44, Flickr

When I chose Zan McDowell’s Eating Lizzy I didn’t realise that it was only available on Kindle.  Not having a Kindle and not wanting to give money to Amazon who (allegedly) don’t pay U.K. tax I got round this by buying it for the iPad and giving Apple my money – although I’ve been reliably informed they don’t pay tax either (allegedly).   It’s hard trying to make ethical purchasing choices (apparently).   Anyway, ethics aside, this also means that there will forever be a gap on my Round the World Reading shelves.  In my mind’s eye I see this as giving a rather rakish, toothless quality to the shelves.  A condition I might mirror in the flesh come Zimbabwe.

The premise of Eating Lizzy is simple.  The Leymans, a Michigan family, go on holiday to Barbados, get trapped in a cave and eat their landlady’s little girl, Lizzy, to stay alive.  Wouldn’t we all? Well, I guess that’s the question.   In the vein of Jodi Picoult and Sophie Hannah (both worth reading by the way), McDowell’s novel is driven by answering a ‘What if…’   and this is what lingers after the novel is finished, which is the power of this kind of novel I suppose. But when a novel is a simple poser of a poser then it has to pose it as elegantly and enticingly as possible.   On the whole McDowell succeeds.  There is a strong sense of Barbados as a place where people work and live and not just as some holiday marketeer’s dream.   The characters are flawed (perhaps a little too patly) and engaging, and as premises go, the central plot keeps us turning the pages.  The basic ‘what if…’ is also nicely framed within the subsequent legal question – is it ever justifiable to take a life to save your own?  Further, the novel (dredging up memories of Hispanic Studies and Civilazación y Barbarie, Ariel, and Todo caliban) flirts with South and Central America’s post-colonial discourse, and the image of Caliban/Cannibal/Carib.   McDowell is a semi-retired academic so I don’t think I’m reading too much into this.

If there are issues, they are minor and perhaps will only bug me.   As mentioned, I feel that the character’s flaws are not particularly nuanced. They seem to be there because characters need flaws, so… let’s make the father (Jayson) tight-fisted, the mother (Victoria) downtrodden, the son (Grant) a Mummy’s boy.  There’s never a point where the plot arises out these flaws or is impacted by them despite valiant attempts to make it seem as though they do.   The beginning of the book takes time (too much) to show Jayson forcing his choice of holiday destination on the family because he can get expenses from the University Dept where he works if he can only convince the University in Barbados to invite him to give a paper.   He makes contact with the head of Dept there and the details of their discussions, their subsequent meeting and seminar, are all described. But the head of the Dept doesn’t feature beyond the first morning in Barbados.  Perhaps I’ve missed the point of all this. I can only assume it’s there to give Jayson a reason for having books on cannibalism in his bedroom so that when Lizzy goes missing, and the police search his room, there’s a concomitant righteous frenzy from the media.  It’s really not necessary for the plot.   Wouldn’t there be a media mouth frothing anyway if a local child appeared to have been kidnapped by a rich American family?  Moreover (blimey I’m even writing like an undergraduate again!), the shock for the Mother and the baying Bajan public when the truth finally comes out would have been far more powerful without this adumbration.

Another fault, and again perhaps this is just me, is that McDowell suffers from info dumpage.   Characters have conversations that would never happen in life.   Jayson: “Let’s go to Barbados for our holiday” Victoria: “Barbados?” Jayson: “Yes, it’s a sovereign state in the Lesser Antilles, with a population of 284,000 people.  It has perfect year round temperatures and is home to four species of nesting turtles.” Victoria: “But tell me, what about the crime rate?” Jayson: “Well, crime is primarily characterised by street crime and robbery. Although last year two women were allegedly raped on the West coast of the Island and there were 31 homicides compared to 433 in Chicago for the same period. Although, naturally you have to take into account the homicide to head of population ratio.”

This is exaggerated, but you get the picture.

Minor niggles apart, I enjoyed the novel enough to want to read more McDowell and I can’t help feeling that if she weren’t a Caribbean writer she’d be as mainstream as Picoult or Hannah.