Lovell's 'Song of Night' - dreams denied

August 16, 1998|By Jean Thompson | Jean Thompson,SUN STAFF

"Song of Night," by Glenville Lovell. Soho Press. 256 pages. $22.

Do not be lulled by the lush tropical setting. "Song of Night" is a haunting Greek tragedy, transplanted in a Barbados fishing village.

Glenville Lovell sets the scene in a claustrophobic paradise: Just beyond a pristine beach where Americans go to get their groove back, there's a dead-end lane inhabited by poor black vendors and fishermen. Through them, the novelist asks: Who is wealthier ` the tourist who can afford to buy love, or the lover who appreciates his simple island bounty?

Into this tension strides the protagonist, a fiercely passionate young woman on whom a chorus of neighbors and relatives passes judgment. Cyan, 18, is the child of a murderer: Her father has killed a man in a fit of jealousy. He has been hanged, sealing the fates of the wife and two daughters left behind.

Cyan is catapulted to adult status, her first job, her first loves. She scribbles letters to her father and hides them from her brittle mother, with whom she battles constantly. Their drama exposes the family's unsteady foundation of guilt, shame and love.

The reader learns that the charismatic and difficult Cyan prefers her nickname, Night - her favorite time of the day and the color of her complexion. The writer carefully exploits the symbolism: At times, she seems to be sleepwalking through a long darkness of dreams, desire and danger.

When at last Night falls in love, she chooses a beach vendor who wants her but cannot be faithful: He sleeps with tourist women for their money. She forsakes God, and before long is supplementing her meager income by selling her body to the Americans, too.

"There was a time when she envied those girls with easy respectable jobs in town. Some girls, like her sister, were even given dreams of being a doctor or lawyer. She was never allowed to have such dreams. She wasn't smart enough. But she had dreams. Now she can't remember what they were."

An American woman who exploits Night's desperation triggers the novel's violent climax.

Lovell has borrowed successfully from the structure and storytelling devices of myth. His second novel, "Song of Night" has the intimacy of a folktale, and the pacing of drama.

A native of Barbados who lives in New York, Lovell allows his characters to speak liberally in colorful Bajan English and slang, which ring true but will disorient readers who have never navigated their misplaced pronouns. The effect is culture shock, which Lovell may well have intended.

Take this one to the beach, but not for light reading. Bon voyage.

Jean Thompson is The Sun's assistant managing editor for staff development, and a collector of African-American memorabilia. Her family, two generations in America, has paternal roots in Barbados.

! Pub date: 8/16/98

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.