Review by Kathryn Smoraczewska
Kerry’ Young’s Gloria (2013) is a confident second novel. From the author of Pao (2011) comes the interlinked story of Gloria Campbell, a young, poor black women growing up in mid-twentieth century Jamaica. Her story begins in 1938 when dramatic events in her rural hometown force her to flee to Kingston with her younger sister. Here she struggles to build a life for herself and to protect those that she cares about from the injustices of poverty. The narrative winds its way through 34 years of ups and downs, for both protagonist and nation.
Young’s prose is compelling; narrated from Gloria’s perspective in present-tense Jamaican patois, its striking rhythm allows the reader to hear the idiosyncrasies of each finely-drawn character’s speech patterns. As Gloria’s confidence grows throughout the course of the novel, so too does the articulacy of her narration. This effect is subtle where it could have been laboured in the hands of a clumsier writer, and it really allows the reader to get under the protagonist’s skin and grow empathetically with her. Gloria is a well- rounded character, never idealised by the author, but sympathetic in her imperfection. The supporting cast are evoked equally powerfully, and although the majority are criminals of one stripe or another, for the most part the reader is on their side, which is vital to retaining interest in the strongly character-driven plot.
Young claims that her intention was to bring different aspects of Jamaica to the western reader’s attention, by focusing on marginalised communities and characters. This is without doubt achieved, and the author strongly engages with issues of identity, class and gender, demonstrating how these different variables impact on the characters’ diverse experiences whilst contextualising her narrative in socio-historical terms. This approach is interesting, particularly when Young looks outside Jamaica, and focuses on Cuba as a counterpoint.However, the text never quite achieves the breadth of scope one expects of a historical novel, and the political history is uneven and episodic rather than sustained and well-integrated into the narrative. Nonetheless, from a feminist perspective, the author’s technique is largely successful; her storytelling frequently results in an honest and compassionate appraisal of the challenges faced by women of different backgrounds – sexual violence, prostitution and motherhood are all addressed with respectful and controlled understatement.
Unfortunately, at other points it seems as though the author has a checklist of sexual and gender based oppression that she is trying to race through by the end of the book. The end result is that some issues are paid lip service, smacking of tokenism, and her impassioned plea for the improvement of women’s lives is not delivered as powerfully to the reader as it might have been. Indeed, the fact that the most explicit exposition of how the sex/gender system harms women comes from one of the male characters is particularly problematic – doubtless Young’s intention was good, but the decision to put this key soliloquy in a man’s mouth comes across as condescending, not to mention the fact that it prevents her otherwise strong female lead from realising what the events of her own life should have made abundantly clear. Instead, Gloria is forced into the position of naive pupil, at the point in the narrative when the author should be celebrating her independence, intelligence and strength.
Overall Young’s novel shows promise, and we can doubtless look forward to her building on her successes in her future work.