Latest Title: The Clearing
Publisher: Diversion Books
Release Date: April 5, 2016
As a youngster I grew up on the island of St. Lucia, one of numerous places we lived as kids following my father's global-trotting career in international development. It was a formative experience for me, and while The Clearing is certainly a novel, many of the events that happen in the book happened in real-life - at least in the real-life of the twelve-year-old version of me.
The book exists in a world swathed in folklore and superstition, much like the island itself, and as youngsters living among this we all took it for granted. It was simply a natural part of the island's fabric: you look both ways before you cross the street; you stay away from snakes like the fer de lance, and you don't stay out late or "de bolom gwan take you." It was advice, not hyperbole. (What's a bolom, you ask? I'll leave that for you to discover in the book.)
Much of the novel is set in and around an old plantation house deep within the St. Lucian rainforest. The house itself is very much a character, and one of the many advantages I had in writing the novel was the fact that the house actually exists. It's a real place, in a real plantation on the island. And if I was able to convey a sense of dilapidation and senescence such that the reader finds the old house unsettling and, well, creepy, then I've at least come close the malice that the real place projected. I spent a single night there in the late 70s, and that experience stayed with me; it was the kernel that later became The Clearing.
In the novel I've changed the name of the estate, but what happened there - at least as far as the bolom goes - remains largely intact in the pages of the novel. This, of course, raises the question of my own credibility. Now, I'm a fairly rational person, I think, and I generally subscribe to the set of realities that my western education reinforces as real. But the night that I spent there - the night the twelve-year old me spent there - changed everything about what possibilities I'm willing to consider today. I'm inclined to believe that perhaps so far, not everything has been catalogued and described by science.
In The Clearing, the apparently supernatural aspects meet the human element in the practice of Obeah - which is a well documented phenomenon that exists throughout the entire Caribbean. It's a belief system something akin to Voodoo, but it's distinctive in that it's rooted in the collision of cultures made possible by the slave trade. As a kid I remember seeing the effects of Obeah first hand, where a local man my family knew quite well - he made wicker chairs for us and for many of the ex-pats on the island - withered away and died over the course of a few short weeks, having been allegedly struck down by the powers of a "black" Obeah man.
At the outset, what I did know of Obeah was based on what we spoke about, experienced (and likely invented) as kids; there was good and bad Obeah (white and black), it was to be feared and revered, and it had many deliciously creepy elements associated with it such as shape-shifting and grave robbing. Of course, as eleven and twelve-year-olds, this was where we focused our attention. I recognized that for the novel, I really needed to a better grounding in the subject. And as it turned out, researching Obeah was just plain fascinating.
The real Obeah - at least what you can uncover through conventional means - tends to inform you more about its evolution than its secret and highly protected rituals. It is an amalgam of practices that came with the mixing of Africans and the indigenous people of the Caribbean, the Caribs and Arawaks - all of whom were enslaved and likely turned to Obeah in the face of the horrors heaped upon them during that ugly period of slavery. Trace it back and you'll even find elements of Christianity in it, some even alleging that Moses' parting of the Red Sea called upon some elements of Obeah. It really is fascinating stuff.
But despite the importance of the supernatural elements of the novel, the story is still one grounded in a more common reality, addressing what I see as a very human capacity to turn our heads away and not deal with something uncomfortable - despite the consequences. In The Clearing, Nate Mason has managed to live much of his life in the lee of a tragedy he was part of as a child, and is only forced to look back once his life begins to fall unstoppably apart. I guess the central question here is this: Are we brave enough to address those dark elements of our own pasts? Or is it more convenient to simply look away? Self deception can be a balm - for as long as it works. But to a greater or lesser extent, the turning away always comes at a price, and for many, there's carnage in consistently ignoring something across the years.