Though Paule Marshall’s new novel takes place in the present, her imagination, like that of her main character, seems to linger in the era of slavery — not what you’d call a golden age. And yet, in Daughters, there’s something paradisaical about the period. This was the time before black women and black men went their separate ways, when legendary Caribbean heroes such as Congo Jane and Will Cudjoe shared both love and rebellion. Their statues still loom above the island of Triunion as part of a monument to the nation’s history. And yet to Ursa Beatrice Mackenzie, Congo Jane and Will Cudjoe have become more of a torment than a solace.
When we first see her far from her native Triunion, Ursa is in Manhattan bundling up against the cold on her way out of an abortion clinic. A 30ish social scientist with a talent for combining academics with activism, she now finds herself in shock. The man in her life doesn’t know he has made her pregnant, and she doesn’t intend to tell him. She hasn’t even told her best friend.
How did this perfectly intelligent young woman come to be so thoroughly under wraps? The explanation takes us back, if not to slavery times, then at least to her father’s childhood on Triunion. Growing up during the final years of colonialism, Primus Mackenzie understood he was to be a liberator; and for a brief period, he came close. He and his American-born wife, Estelle Harrison, campaigned through the back country of Triunion like a modern-day Will Cudjoe and Congo Jane. But all too soon Primus had to settle into a career of futile opposition, while Estelle, bored and cheated on, turned nearly catatonic in his oversize, over-furnished house. Now Ursa feels her parents’ history pulling at her, as if she were ”a cat with a string of tin cans and some bones from a graveyard tied to its tail” — and there’s no Will Cudjoe to help her cut them loose. Exploring the dismal political realities of present-day black America, trying to negotiate a relationship with her sometime lover, Ursa feels as if her Caribbean past is merging with her American present. When she gets an unexpected appeal from her mother, it is time for Ursa to go back to Triunion for a climactic choosing of sides.
Marshall’s fans — and there are many — will recall the feeling of this push and pull between the Caribbean and the U.S., between past and present, between black women and black men from her debut novel, Brown Girl, Brownstones. First published in 1959 and still in print, that book will richly reward anyone who seeks it out. Two later novels, The Chosen Place, the Timeless People and Praisesong for the Widow, also covered much the same territory. If Daughters has a fault, it’s that Marshall may now have been over this ground too thoroughly for her own good. You can sense the problem in the characters, who now behave themselves too well, never straying an inch from Marshall’s control, and in the way the plot seems constructed out of a sense of duty, rather than for pleasure. At its best, Daughters reads like well-made commercial fiction with a Caribbean-American accent. It gives you a little more than you’d get from the tidy romances of Catherine Cookson but a little less than you want from Paule Marshall. B