Set on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, officially an overseas department of mainland France, but with the legacy of past colonial exploitation, and ongoing tensions between former slaves and the descendants of their economic masters, the White Créoles or “békés”, the action takes place in the 1990s. This is a period of particular unrest: demands for independence from France, union-led strikes cause power cuts, mountains of waste fester uncollected, and ferocious packs of wild dogs terrorise the streets, while the rich rely on fierce hounds to protect their villas from thieves.
The novel opens with the unexpected acquittal of Dieudonné, a young black gardener charged with the murder of his middle-aged, wealthy, white employer Loraine. Since it appears unquestionable that he killed her, and he unfortunately shares a name with an infamous real-life French comedian, the reader may feel uneasy about sympathising with him. In this highly publicised case, Dieudonné is recognised wherever he goes, and opinion is divided, with some of his own relatives reluctant to give him shelter.
Covering the twenty-four hours after his release, Maryse Condé gradually reveals the circumstances of his crime, together with details of the past which shaped him. Perhaps it was the love and care for his mother Marine, crippled by an accident, which led him, after her death, to transfer his affections to Lorraine. A once beautiful woman, ambitions thwarted by poverty, Marine grew embittered after her abandonment by the wealthy man who has never lifted a finger to help their son Dieudonné. He was given a brief taste of “the good life” when the Cohens, a family visiting from abroad, took a fancy to him, taking him on trips aboard their boat, “La Belle Créole”, even letting him steer, until all contact abruptly ceased after their return home. The boat is left to rot in the marina, a refuge for Dieudonné’s criminal friends or his eccentric mentor, the penniless poet Boris – one of the novel’s larger than life characters.
The novel is peppered with Créole words which are explained in a glossary at the end of the English translation, but unfortunately not in the original French version. It is well worth making the effort to look these up in order to appreciate the book fully.
Apart from his acquittal, a series of unfortunate coincidences seem to dog Dieudonné. Yet he also makes a frustrating anti-hero in that, partly through being so damaged by life, he seems incapable of pursuing opportunities when they arise. The snare of his obsession with Loraine, his plight of how to deal with an unexpected freedom when he has lost the one person he loves, weave the at times wearisome thread binding this novel together.
Beneath this lies what is for me the essence of the novel: the vivid portrayal of Guadeloupe, with its strong sense of place combines with the searing parody of a range of often exaggerated characters to raise our understanding of life there and arouse sympathy for those like Dieudonné whose existence has been blighted by circumstance.