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Review: The Jumbee by Pamela Keyes

the jumbee keyes Review: The Jumbee by Pamela Keyes

The theatre is a domain rife with superstition, with performers and stage crew alike navigating an array of strange norms: the wishing upon each other of bad luck before a performance, the avoidance of particular colours and props, the beliefs that particular plays such as the Shakespearian masterpiece'Macbeth are cursed. In her debut novel'The Jumbee Pamela Keyes marries the new superstition of the theatre with the complex belief systems of the Caribbean, creating a rich and claustrophobic setting for her modern day retelling of Gaston Leroux's classic'The Phantom of the Opera.

Esti Legard is the daughter of the incomparable thespian Alan Legard, a man famed for his encyclopaedic knowledge of the plays of Shakespeare and of the acting craft, and for his ability to dissect complex roles with unparalleled incisiveness and confidence. Though Esti is an accomplished performer herself, she has always been overshadowed by her father, leaving her with little confidence in her skill as an actress. Having emerged from mourning some months after her father's death from cancer, however, Esti realises that she has been freed from the seemingly inescapable legacy of her father. Determined to prove herself as a performer, Esti enrols in a well-regarded theatre school in the Caribbean, and she and her mother begin to reconstruct their lives anew, something that is daunting for both of them without the confident, brilliant force of the late Alan Legard.

But even on the tiny island of Cariba Esti finds herself haunted by the spectre of her father, whose fame and legend is such that Esti finds herself constantly facing her past. Her familial heritage is not the only thing setting her apart from the other students, however: Esti's status as a 'continental' poses a challenge to her desire to integrate, with the school theatre instructor overlooking Esti in his desire to guide the careers of West Indian students, and the locals cynical about her very presence. Esti becomes increasingly a subject of alienation after a series of on-set mishaps: speculation begins to grow in the superstitious community that Esti has been communicating with the malevolent jumbee suspected of haunting the theatre.

And it's a speculation that's not entirely uninformed, for poor tormented and conflicted Esti, whose sense of self is struggling without the presence of her father and in the ruthless context in which she has found herself, finds herself drawn to an anonymous presence that makes itself known whenever she is alone in the theatre. It is a presence that manifests as a voice, one that soothes and massages Esti's unravelling self-concept and guides her towards the success she is finding so difficult to attain as a lesser Legard. Esti begins to lean on her new confidante, whose knowledge of the theatre and of the great playwrights rivals that of her father, and it is not long until this voice in the darkness becomes her sustaining force, instructing and moulding her into the performer Esti has always longed to become. It is not long, however, until Esti's relationship with her unseen confidante becomes self-destructive. Esti becomes increasingly addicted to the guidance of the voice, becoming lost and directionless without it, and the voice begins less to assist than to manipulate her, slowly isolating her from all those around her and lashing out in fury at anyone else who tries to draw close.

Things worsen when Esti finds herself developing feelings for childhood friend Rafe, with the ensuing love triangle bringing with it all manner of cruel and destructive tumult. Esti, though slowly coming to realise the abusive and punitive nature of her relationship with her invisible lover, finds it impossible to extricate herself from his platitudes and prodigious theatrical knowledge, perhaps out of some sense of guilt for having for so long treated her father with such dispassion and forced disinterest. But her relationship with the womanising Rafe is no healthier, and it seems that Esti, like her mother, who is increasingly dealing with her own sense of isolation by using alcohol as a crutch, is seeking to punish herself for past misdeeds.

Despite some missteps with the local dialect that are awkward to read on the page, Keyes makes excellent use of her island setting throughout the novel. However, I can't help but feel that the setting is in some ways superfluous to the story itself. While I understand the need for Esti to escape the emotional shackles of her life in New York, it seems strange that she and her mother, given their impressive connections and not insubstantial wealth, should pick a theatre school in such a strangely remote place. While the Carribean context offers a rich and spiritual backdrop upon which to pin a narrative that taunts the reader with its eerily ghostly vibe, the marrying of the two at times feels forced. This is particularly the case when the background of Esti's invisible would-be lover, Alan, is slowly revealed: his back story feels awkwardly twisted and shoehorned so as to fit the Phantom of the Opera narrative, which Keyes closely follows, and the sheer series of coincidences involved in his meeting Esti is rather difficult for the logically minded reader to stomach.

Alan himself is probably the most problematic character in the book, in part due to this ersatz-feeling background, but also due to his current circumstances, which are complex to the point of being utterly unbelievable. Moreover, Alan's role initially barely extends beyond that of the voice of Esti's internal dialogue, and it takes some time for him to become an active character. However, when he does, any depth is lost by the limiting of his dialogue to Shakespearian quotes that tend to obscure rather than illuminate. While I recognise that his knowledge of Shakespeare is supposed to be all-encompassing, and indeed, all-consuming, we're given little indication of his understanding of the bard beyond the fact that he has simply memorised the various plays and sonnets. Alan thus simply becomes a series of quotes and promulgations; he is largely a sounding board for Esti as she struggles with her sense of identity and self-worth. It is, one has to admit, rather ironic that he asserts so strongly that it's the character's voice that is essential on the stage when his own fails so resoundingly to make any impact on the reader.

Rafe, however, is similarly difficult to connect with, in part because he is sketched too hastily and simply as the local Lothario, and what growth he does undergo as a character, such as his treatment of Alan in the final stages of the book, feels forced by the hand of an author desperate to fit her narrative to the existing scaffolding provided by the Phantom of the Opera. Rafe is simply a foil for most of the book, and plays little role in the book other than to challenge the relationship between Alan and Esti.

While Esti is at times a strong and admirable character who is given a good deal of depth, there are times where her actions are strikingly difficult for the reader to accept. Although the presence of ghostly phantom is presumably meant to highlight the degree to which Estis identity is linked with the theatre, the ease with which she allows herself to be pulled into a quasi-relationship with the disembodied Alan is both unbelievable and rather terrifying, and her increasing reliance on and infatuation with him remains difficult to comprehend: just how does an otherwise well-adjusted girl fall so gormlessly for a domineering lunatic? Moreover, Estis decisions regarding both Rafe and Alan towards the latter part of the book are tremendously problematic: while Im aware that both The Jumbee and its predecessor are about compassion and acceptance, I have little sympathy for anyone who engages in emotional abuse or the not-so-trifling act of kidnapping, and I find it utterly unfathomable that Esti should act in the way that she does as regards Alan and his far from honourable intentions.

One character who does stand out strongly in The Jumbee is Estis mother Aurora, who is palpably drowning in her own grief. Aurora, like Esti, is struggling to slot herself back into life without the existential prop of Alan Legard, and the anguish she experiences as a result of Estis obsessive and self-destructive behaviour is utterly believable. The mother-daughter relationship is probably the most strongly rendered element of the book, and there are scenes that are quite difficult to read as a result.

The main area where The Jumbee falls flat, however, is in the pacing. The novel appears to reach a climax within the first hundred pages, leaving the reader rather bemused about what exactly is going to comprise the following three quarters of the book. Its as though someone has shot Chekhovs proverbial gun in the first act, and then, to the audiences bewilderment, replaced it on the mantelpiece. While the book does stagger on, it takes some time for it to regain its momentum, and by the time the true climax has arrived, the reader feels as though theyve read three hundred pages worth of epilogue. For this reason, theres little sense of the rush and relief that comes with the typical climax and denouement structure expected in this type of narrative. The lack of climax comes in part from the fact that there is a good deal of repetition in the book, not only in terms of plot points, but also in terms of character arcs. Were given not one but two key theatrical performances, for a start'its at the point of this first performance that the reader is expecting the novel to end; perhaps rewriting this scene so that the production involved were merely a dress rehearsal or similar might have helped mitigate this problem'both of which are preceded by similar narrative arcs. Moreover, the latter half of the book largely comprises Estis extreme romantic ambivalence, and the sense of deja vu becomes overpowering after a while. The novels introduction is problematic, too, with the author affecting an in media res approach to lend immediacy. This backfires, however, as the reader is thrust into the goings on with whiplash-worthy haste, and it takes some time (indeed, a chapter or two) for the author to retreat enough to allow the reader to determine what is actually going on.

While The Jumbee does have some superlative moments, and I vastly enjoyed the notion of a Caribbean Phantom of the Opera, the novel suffers from a logical and narrative unevenness that stops it from reasonably cohering as a whole. I cant help but feel that this would have been a stronger book had the author stepped away from the crutch-like support of Lerouxs work and allowed her own novel to stand independently.

Rating: star Review: The Jumbee by Pamela Keyesstar Review: The Jumbee by Pamela Keyeshalfstar Review: The Jumbee by Pamela Keyesblankstar Review: The Jumbee by Pamela Keyesblankstar Review: The Jumbee by Pamela Keyes

With thanks to Media Muscle for the review copy.

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  1. Wow, incredible review! I liked it more than you, but wow, you really highlight ALL of the issues with the book so fantastically! Thank you!

  2. Stephanie /

    Hi Amy, thanks for stopping by!

    I know I got my teeth into the book with this review, but I think its because I had such high expectations. This book has so much potentialits got a fabulous setting, and I love the idea of a modern day Phantom of the Operabut I just felt like it needed a bit of editorial manhandling. It could have been incredibly good, so it was a disappointment to me that it fell short of the mark. :)

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