THE GHOST OF BRIDGETOWN
Debra Spark


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Graywolf Press, 2001
Reviewed by Joy Calderwood

Contemporary Barbados

"It takes a ghost to lay a ghost" seems to be one of the themes of THE GHOST OF BRIDGETOWN. It is a doubtful aphorism, but one Charlotte Lewin would feel at home with. Charlotte is haunted by the ghost of her sister Helen, who, months after her death, is still a dominating figure. In reaction to Helen, Charlotte has dedicated her life to avoiding self-expression. Her main emotions would be resentment and self-disgust, if only she knew how to feel.

The Ghost of Bridgetown is Henry Lazar, a pretty young man who was lost at sea and returned. His missionary employers started the story that God performed a miracle, and Henry can’t counter it because the residents love the sensationalism. He especially finds the rumor difficult to contradict because of his eerie beauty and the uncanny understanding he is said to have of the needs of the people around him.

The other main character, on a separate but converging story line with Charlotte’s, is Wayne Deare. Wayne is currently fighting and losing the war of the young man with a mind and an education, surrounded by people of his community who condemn him for the betrayal of having done well. By the time Charlotte arrives in Barbados, Wayne has surrendered to ineffectual passivity. Charlotte has been charged to return a valuable menorah to Barbados; and Wayne’s boss, representing a museum of black culture on Barbados, is one of the predators circling about her angling for the artifact. It is an inauspicious beginning to a friendship.

Then there is a death and a disappearance, and a different set of people join Charlotte and Wayne on stage. Charlotte attends the recently re-established synagogue and meets Henry’s parents, some of their friends, and a cunning businessman who would like her to believe he is the Lazars’ friend. On the other side of the fence of bigotry that crosses the island, Charlotte gets involved in the legal troubles of Wayne’s brother. This puts her smack in the middle of a budding race riot, no thanks to Wayne’s boss Frank. Henry’s aunt and a ghetto friend finally show her where the true heart of the island lies. Many of the characters make the kind of grating mark in the book that they would if they walked in cleats across a hardwood floor, but they provide Charlotte with the answers she is seeking in her life.

Author Debra Spark has no patience with bigotry, from whatever source, but she has a great deal of patience with her characters. Yes, she understands them – witheringly. A girlfriend tells Wayne that "he didn’t want to be loved, he wanted to be under surveillance." Other sketches: "Each time an approaching car wasn’t for her, [Charlotte] turned and gave the doorman an apologetic smile." "... Inside Henry was another, smaller Henry ... a boxer, bobbing and weaving, pleased to be dodging definition." "... Frank tried to reorient his speech without thanking anyone for anything ..." Such characterizations hit home with a satisfying zing but without creating dislike in the reader.

Spark’s vividly observant writing style extends throughout the book. Whether describing island scenery or the simmering of mob unrest, it gives craggy, concentrated visuals that shout in your face and reflect glare in your eyes. Wayne’s experience of the main event at the Lazars’ anniversary party is made astonishingly clear because the reader is sharing Wayne’s temporary deafness. The home of Perle Lazar is a schizophrenic moil of neighborhood decoration and ignored items, which Perle never looks at but Charlotte does, so that we see what Perle appears to be and what she really is all in one scene.

THE GHOST OF BRIDGETOWN is a study of the clashing of crossed cultures, and of personal guilt, both real and assumed. Debra Spark seems to understand both the Jewish and black communities of Barbados so well that her novel feels educational in addition to being entertaining and enlightening. It is her second novel. Her first, COCONUTS FOR THE SAINT, received excellent notices from the highest sources, and THE GHOST OF BRIDGETOWN is an intriguing follow-up by a talented writer.

June 2002 Review, Original Version Published on the Independent Reviews Site

 

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