Published by Tinder Press / Headline / Little, Brown
This is a powerful, gut-wrenching book set on Baxter’s Beach, Barbados, the kind of place you see advertised in tourist brochures, with coconut trees, sand and blue seas. Cherie Jones’s novel looks behind this perfect façade, revealing the lives of the people—especially the women—who actually live there.
Lala is a young woman married to Adan, a violent man who lives just outside the law. After Lala’s mother was killed by her husband, her grandmother Wilma took her in. But when Lala married Adan, Wilma refused to have anything more to do with her. Although Wilma has a point—Adan is bad news—it means that when things go wrong, Lala doesn’t feel she has anyone to turn to.
Mira is a mixed-race woman who passes for white. Her mother was a white woman who had affair with a Barbadian man of standing in the community. Mira marries a white man, Peter, and moves to Wimbledon in the UK. But they return to Baxter’s Beach for holidays, renting one of the villas.
The lives of Lala and Mira collide when a robbery goes wrong, and Adan kills Peter. This is followed some days later by the death of Lala and Adan’s baby, which Adan blames Lala for (it was really his fault). His friend Tone, who is in love with Lala, tries to protect Lala by pretending the baby was kidnapped and killed by someone else. This brings in the police, and things start to get complicated.
Ironically, Baxter’s Beach is known as Paradise, although it is nothing of the kind for the people who live there. Cherie Jones takes the idyllic picture of dreamy, perfect Caribbean islands and gives it a big dose of reality. She describes the coconut trees outside Lala and Adan’s house:
“These are not the trees of postcards, not the type you tie your hammock to and lay under with a good book and a rum punch. These trees throw shadows with claws onto the steps and sometimes, when the wind is high, they throw coconuts you have to dodge for fear they could kill you. The fronds of these trees are home to centipedes that fall out while dreaming and land writhing on the steps to Adan’s house.”
Jones’s book that will stay with you long after you’ve finished reading it. She writes about domestic abuse, prostitution, incest, dead-end lives, the divisions between the rich tourists and the locals trying to make a living off them, and the vulnerability—and incredible strength—of the women.
Each chapter tells the story from the point of view of the various characters, and the men get their turn too. By doing this, Jones brings out the humanity of even the nastiest ones.
The title comes from a cautionary tale about two sisters that Wilma tells Lala. Their mother warns them not to go into Baxter’s tunnel, a warren that runs underground (and used for smuggling goods and romantic trysts). The good sister listens to her mother, but the naughty one decides to explore the tunnel. She is grabbed by the thing that lives in the tunnel and has to be pulled out, losing her arm in the process.
But Lala has her own take on the story, wanting to know why no one went back in to find the girl’s arm. Anyway, it wouldn’t be so bad having one arm: the girl could still find a husband and have children and a house. “‘Stupid girl,’ says Wilma. ‘How she gonna sweep it?’”
I love the hope in the title: even one-armed women who go their own way can find a way to sweep their houses.