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  • Written by Margaret Cezair-Thompson
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A Novel

Written by Margaret Cezair-ThompsonAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Margaret Cezair-Thompson


List Price: $11.99


On Sale: May 12, 2010
Pages: 368 | ISBN: 978-0-307-75559-9
Published by : Random House Random House Group
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It is 1981. Jean Landing secretly plans to flee her beloved Jamaica–the only home her family has ever known, a place now rife with political turmoil. But before she can make her final preparations, she receives devastating news: Lana, her sister, is dead. The country’s state of emergency leaves no time to arrange a proper funeral. Even Jean’s mother, Monica, who hadn’t spoken to Lana in more than a decade, cannot fully embrace her grief.

The tragedy only underscores Jean’s need to leave an island that holds no promise of a future. Her harrowing journey to freedom across a battered landscape takes Jean through a terrain of memories: of her childhood, with a detached mother at odds with an adoring father, of her complex bond with Lana, and of the friends and lovers who have shaped and shared her days. Epic in scope, The True History of Paradise poignantly portrays the complexities of family and racial identity in a troubled Eden.


Chapter One

It's Easter, and Jamaica is in a state of emergency.

A woman looks out from her veranda. Like most verandas on the island, this one has recently been enclosed in iron grillwork, and this grillwork also covers every window of the house. It's a hot, bright afternoon without breeze. Inside, a transistor radio is playing, and now and then she hears the dogs bark at a stray goat wandering past the garden gate. She wears a faded red housedress and diamond earrings. Her eyes are light brown, an unusual color for someone of such dark complexion ("Where dis black pickney come from?" her own mother asked, examining her at birth).

She lives on Bonnieview Terrace in the suburban highlands of Kingston. To her east are the Blue Mountains, air-blue at the horizon.

But that isn't where she looks now.

Spread out before her, between the broken circle of mountains and the sea, is the capital: corrugated tin roofs, leaning shacks, high-rise hotels, flamboyants she can name from this distance by their colors, the irregular geometry of city houses and lawns, swimming pools, great bushy treetops, animal and vehicle pausing and proceeding, and the corrugated tin roofs repeating themselves all the way out to the corrugated gray water of the harbor.

Since morning she has counted six fires. They continue blazing, barely luminous on such a bright day, adding no noticeable heat to the already insufferable air.

She telephoned her mother earlier, having heard about a fire on Molynes Road not far from the family business. The moment the secretary answered Jean regretted making the call. Her mother was busy. "She talkin' long distance. Hol' awn a minute-" Her mother's assistant, Miss Wong, shouted across the room to a delivery man, something about Easter buns. "Jean, you can cawl back later?" "It's all right," Jean said, feeling pointless, realizing it was all business as usual at Island Bakery. Still, she fumbled on, saying she had heard on the radio about the fire across the road at Mr. Mahfood's shop and-

Monica Landing got on the phone:

"What happen? You 'fraid?"

Monica has never been afraid of anything and is openly contemptuous of anyone who shows fear. She considers her daughter weak-minded, like her late husband, Roy Landing.

Roy died when Jean was seven. But memories of him surface so often that he continues to live with her in a bright, episodic way. One of his paintings-one of the few he ever finished-hangs in the National Gallery, and a story of his, published posthumously, turns up now and then in anthologies.

Another fire now blazes, near the university, just a few miles away. The firemen won't come. They've been on strike since the King Street fire, when they were shot at by men with machine guns.

You 'fraid?

She unlocks the veranda grillwork and walks down the long paved driveway to the gate. The gardener, Hilston, is late. She knows what he has to go through to get here from his part of town. Roadblocks and soldiers are the least of it; there's the danger of ambush on every unguarded lane. The city has been divided into war zones marked out by graffiti. The name manley or seaga, or letters, PNP or JLP, are painted on sidewalks and walls in their respective party colors, orange and green. No graffiti means you're in No Man's Land and you take your chances.

She peers down the road, hoping to see Hilston making his way up the hill. A few days ago he told her about an incident he saw on his way to work.

"Dem chop down a man on Birdsucker Lane dis mawnin'."

"What you mean 'chop down'? They stab him?"

"No, ma'am. Chop 'im 'ead off clean-clean."

He has never been this late. He must have decided it was too dangerous to go out.

She looks at the red ginger growing in front of the veranda. It's overgrown and is bringing lizards into the house. She has wanted for some time now to dig it up and plant roses there instead. Hilston said he would help her even though he has the day off. He has worked for them for twelve years and thinks of it as his garden.

Something must have happened, she thinks. He won't come.

He doesn't realize-how could he? she can barely admit it to herself- that the red ginger has to be done today because tomorrow, God willing and nothing standing in her way, she will leave this house, this garden, this city.

She goes back inside, locking the grillwork, securing the chain and padlock around it.

The kitchen smells of onions and thyme. Irene is marinating fish and listening to her radio drama, Portia Faces Life. The story has been on the air for as long as Jean can remember. She would like to tell Irene that she is going away, to sit and talk with her in this honest kitchen with the hum of the refrigerator and crackle of the transistor radio.

"Fire at the university," Jean says.

"Eh-eh! Look like dem wan' bun down de whole country."

Jean pours herself some lemonade, pink, sweet, and so cold it chills the glass.

"No sugar in de supermarket," Irene drones.

A month ago, Irene sprained her ankle in a riot at the supermarket over a shortage of rice. "Miss Jean," she said, recounting the incident, "me neva see anyting like dis from me bawn."

She has worked for the Landings for almost twenty years and, in the face of the recent hardships, has finally assumed the culinary martyrdom to which she always aspired. Every dish of rice-an'-peas that reaches the family table is due to her cunning market strategy and fearlessness. She also provides an ongoing political commentary: "Me neva see anyting like dis from me bawn. Prime Minista 'im na know people ha fe put food ina dem belly . . ."

Jean walks back through the living room. It's dark and cool this time of day. She's tempted to sit down, and, while she can, quietly take in the things around her. Only recently has she come to realize how much she likes this room with its gleaming wood floor and bright Armenian rugs, and her mother's piano, which is rarely played. But she is determined to dig up the red ginger; the roses are outside, ready to be planted. On her way out she passes the small brass table where the old family photograph stands, the faces in it distinct only in her mind since the morning sunlight has long been whitening away the features of all four-Roy, Monica, Jean, and Jean's sister, Lana.

* * *

She's on her knees pulling up the red ginger, the sun scorching the back of her neck, when her own voice jolts her: "Why are you doing this? Why are you bothering with this now?"

She goes on digging, uprooting several plants at a time. The effort of her hands and the smell of the soil steady her. Upstairs in her bedroom drawer is a U.S. passport with her photograph and someone else's name. She's leaving. She's made up her mind. There's nothing more to think about, she tells herself and brushes the crawling ants from her arm.

She's still digging, and there's a heap of red, waxlike flowers beside her, when she hears the dogs come tearing around from the back of the house and sees the white pickup truck at the gate.

It's Paul, a day early. Has something happened?

"Jasper! Cleo! Down!" she shouts at the Alsatians, who carry on as they always do when anyone arrives, barking like crazy and lunging at the gate as if they're out to kill. She opens the gate so Paul can drive right up to the house. The dogs run barking alongside the vehicle, a compact Japanese model that cost him dearly in bribes, import taxes, and patience ("But in the long run is well worth it, man, the Japanese build these things to last"). The dogs quiet down, wagging their tails and sniffing the warm body of the pickup, waiting for Paul to get out.

Jean walks up the driveway. She has known Paul since childhood and it is to him that she's always turned for company, solace, safe passage. His habits are well known and dear to her. By now he's usually comfortably sitting on his favorite veranda chair or is inside chatting with Irene, helping himself to a cool drink from the refrigerator. It's odd that he's still sitting in the truck. Is he waiting for her? Does he want her to leave with him now?

One of the dogs begins to whine.

She reaches the top of the driveway, and Paul gets out of the truck. Something has happened.

He tells her, "Lana is dead."

Chapter Two

They bury Lana the next morning because, as someone explains to Jean, burned bodies decompose quickly.

There will be no nine-night for Lana, no tambourines, drums, singing, fried fish, sugar cake, no sprinkling of rum, no glass of water left out at night for the spirit, no time to grieve or seek an explanation or explain. There's the immediate matter of shoes: The mortician needs a pair. Should they buy new ones? Should they cover her burned scalp with a scarf, her hands with gloves? What does it matter? The coffin will be closed. It matters to Lana. It would have mattered to Lana. They're not sure what tense to use now when they talk about her.

It's raining lightly. The funeral takes place in the city's Catholic cemetery at the shrine for the Blessed Virgin. Jean expected graffiti and smashed walls. She's surprised to see how well tended it is. So there's still something the gunmen respect and fear-duppy.

Jean watches her mother, mesmerized. Monica stands by the closed coffin of her elder daughter-the daughter she has not spoken to in over fifteen years-stroking the wood with a manicured, jeweled hand. Her black hat and veil cover her face completely. One of her nephews walks up and puts his arm around her. At his touch, she starts to cry. He says, "Hush, Auntie, is awright," and signals Father Thomas to begin.

Every funeral takes Jean back to that time in her great-grandfather's grocery shop when the family gathered to pay respects to the dying patriarch. She was only five, and yet the shop is one of her clearest memories: its smell of dried herring and carbolic soap, and its neatly arranged tins.

Mr. Ho Sing (whom everyone, even his family, had always called Mr. Ho Sing) was not ill, but his third wife had died a few months earlier in a car accident, and he decided it was time for him to go. He was thought to be about a hundred years old when he lay dying. He himself was unsure of his age. According to his indentured-servant papers, he was twenty when he came from China in 1884 on the Prince Alexander. He had been orphaned when his village was destroyed and had spent most of his childhood begging and stealing around the docks of Macao.

He wanted all his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren around him at the end. There must have been close to a hundred people there. He had never spoken much about China or been known to speak Chinese. But during those last, confused days he had been speaking, or rather grunting, some gibberish that led his children, who had never heard a word of Chinese, to believe he was speaking in his native tongue.

Mr. Ho Sing had not written a will, and although he lived in three rooms at the back of the shop, he was a wealthy man. At the age of eighty or so, assured that his children were financially secure, he had finally indulged in the great, secret wish of his life: he had bought a racehorse, Marshal Bloom. At the height of his career, Marshal Bloom had been worth over fifty thousand pounds, and at the time of the old man's death, the horse's filly, Twice Bloom, was worth three or four times more.

The family contacted the Chinese Benevolent Association, which sent someone to translate Mr. Ho Sing's dying words. He arrived, the Chinese Benevolent Association man, heavyset, wearing a white polyester suit and a flower-print shirt, looking, as Jean's grandmother said, "like a real pappy show-a wonder if him can speak Chinese fe true." He sat around all day with the Ho Sing men, whose preferred beverage, like his, was rum, and joined them in a few games of dominoes.

As relatives wandered in and out of the death room, Cherry, Jean's grandmother and Mr. Ho Sing's only daughter, fussed around her father, fixing his pillows and shouting questions at him the way people do sometimes to people who speak another language.

"You feel awright, Mr. Ho Sing? You need anyting?"

He waved his hand; it was an incomprehensible gesture.

"What about de horse?" Cherry shouted.

Mr. Ho Sing looked startled: "House?"

"Horse! Twice Bloom!"

Mr. Ho Sing blinked and looked thoughtful. He seemed to understand and to be formulating a reply. The Chinese Benevolent Association man was hastened from the dominoes table to the bedside: "Quick, man! Come quick! Mr. Ho Sing wan' fe say someting."

Mr. Ho Sing recognized him and began to grunt.

The translator bent over the bed to listen more closely; Mr. Ho Sing clutched the man's shirt.

"What 'im say? What 'im say?" everybody began asking.

The Chinese Benevolent Association man released himself from Mr. Ho Sing's grasp and chuckled. He took a pack of cigarettes from his pocket and lit one, immensely pleased at being able to hold everyone in suspense.

"Him say, 'Gimme one a dem Benson an' Hedges.' "

A ripple went through the room, the hilarity of it all, the old man begging a cigarette, not in Chinese, but in the Jamaican patois that they all spoke. Even the small children tittered, without fully understanding, when they saw the grown-ups laughing.

And it was then, as he had his last smoke, that Mr. Ho Sing looked at Jean. He had recognized very few people that day, and it was impossible to tell whether he recognized Jean, but for a moment she, out of all the children, held his attention. It might have been because she was the youngest, or it might have been that, among the varying shades of white, yellow, and brown faces-the mixed-up progeny of the old man's oceanic urges-Jean's was the only one that could unquestionably be called black.

Lana's funeral is barely a funeral. The priest didn't know her, but he knows Monica, and so he speaks vaguely about "a mother's suffering" and reminds everyone to attend the Easter vigil later that day. Only a dozen or so mourners have turned up. There was not enough time to tell people. And there's another reason. Jean counts and names the missing: Roy, Daphne, Cherry, Mary, Deepa-they're gone. Skeletons and spirits.

It isn't until she's walking with the others, following the coffin to the grave, that Lana's death hits her: Her sister is being carried, yes, carried; Lana's footsteps are not among those she hears trampling the wet grass.

She smells something-perfume-and turns around to see who it's coming from. It's no one. It's a hedge of jasmine, the small white flowers drenched with rain, drooping from the branches.
Margaret Cezair-Thompson|Author Q&A

About Margaret Cezair-Thompson

Margaret Cezair-Thompson - The True History of Paradise

Photo © Marion Etlinger

Margaret Cezair-Thompson is the author of the widely acclaimed The Pirate’s Daughter, a #1 Book Sense pick, finalist for Book Sense Book of the Year, and winner of the first annual Essence literary award for fiction. Born in Jamaica, West Indies, she teaches literature and creative writing at Wellesley College in Massachusetts.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Margaret Cezair-Thompson

  Random House Readers Circle: How did this story come to you? Did you experience any of the political upheaval in Jamaica? How did your family deal with it? 

Margaret Cezair-Thompson:
The disturbing changes in the country began during my teens, and I was especially aware of this because my father was a member of the government. I left for college in the United States as the violence began escalating, and it was there while I was an undergraduate that I first attempted writing a short story about the four characters: Lana, her sister, her mother, and Paul. The story focused on Lana’s mental instability and her death. At that time, I didn’t fully grasp what I was writing about. In Finding the Center, the Trinidadian writer V. S. Naipaul talks about how long it took for him as a young aspiring writer to discover his real subject. And that was true for me too. Over the years, I kept going back to the story, trying to revise it, until I finally realized that the short story form wasn’t right for this material. By then a lot had happened in Jamaica, to me, and to those close to me. 

There had been so much violence. Many Jamaicans had left the island because they found the situation unbearable. I felt torn because as unbearable as things were, the country was still for me a place of extraordinary beauty and wonderful memories. Time, distance, and experience–all widened my perspective. I realized what I was writing was a much bigger story: It was about a place, it was multi-generational, and it required more than one voice to tell it. 

RHRC: Was it hard for you to write about a Jamaican leaving her homeland? When did you leave, and how would you characterize the experience? 

I became a U.S. resident officially in 1981, around the time in which the novel is set. Novels are often about “What if?” or “What if I hadn’t?” Unlike Jean, I was here in the United States during some of the worst years of Jamaica’s violence (though I had family there and went back often). In creating the protagonist, Jean, I was in some sense glancing back at what might have been if I hadn’t left when I did. 

I didn’t really feel that I was writing about someone leaving her homeland, but rather about someone torn between going and staying. It’s also about a woman coming to terms with history–her family history and national history–and discovering her own voice and beliefs in the midst of swirling violence and family troubles. Kafka said that a book should be like an axe breaking the frozen sea inside us. I think that in as much as I identified with Jean, I was able to answer a lot of my own personal questions, face some troubling things (including my own panic and helplessness), and also show love for things and people I care about. 

RHRC: When Rebecca Landing sees what the devastating earthquake did to her family’s plantation, she says, “I had thought till then that rivers outlived men.” Why do you think that Jamaica is prone to such hardship and disaster? 

We’re in the tropical, not the temperate, zone. That might explain part of it. The same can be said of certain places in the United States where devastating things have happened, New Orleans for instance. It also has to do with a history that involves conquest, slavery, and colonialism. Rebecca’s words show her continuing passion for the land. Jamaica is her home. The earthquake divides and breaks up the land, separating rivers and sinking and obliterating the entire town of Port Royal. It is from this point on that Rebecca too is divided, exiled in an emotional and physical sense, foreshadowing the main character’s dilemma. Jean Landing experiences a similar type of anguish centuries later. 

RHRC: Do you think Jamaica can continue to outlive the violence and stormy political strife that revisits it on a regular basis? What holds it together?  

I’m not sure what holds us together. Maybe it’s what Roy Landing describes as “some wayward, mixed-up, and mixing spirit.” It is remarkable, I think, that we have a coherent history and identity as a people despite the upheavals, losses, and different ethnicities that are our inheritance: small place, big history. The land is resilient and so are the people. A tree gets split in half during a hurricane and a year later you see new branches and flowers growing on that same tree. All through the dreadful years of violence, Bob Marley and other Jamaican musicians created great music that touched people all over the world. We’re survivors. 

RHRC: In The True History of Paradise, so many foreigners seem to really find their place in Jamaica, yet citizens must pick such politically polarized sides. Why do you think Jamaica is so inclusive and exclusive at the same time? 

By foreigners, do you mean the people who settle there and become Jamaican, be they originally Scottish, Chinese, Indian, or so on? They become as Jamaican as anyone else, and also get caught up in the political polarization. But the sad thing about the polarization is that the victims are, for the most part, the poor. 

RHRC: Have you ever heard the voices of your ancestors? Do you believe in egun iponri

“Ancestors coming and going, living in and around a person” is how I describe egun iponri in the book. This is a difficult question to answer. I don’t hear them the way Jean does in the book. But I live with an awareness of those who came before, their mistakes and their triumphs. Their accumulated experiences amount to something and guide us. Many of us have internalized the voices of our parents, for instance; their words come to us sometimes about something quite trivial, at other times when we’re confused or in distress. 

But the other answer to this question has to do with being a writer: Writers tend to be earnest listeners. Members of my family are often astonished that I know about things that happened when I was very young or before I was born, things that happened to distant or deceased relatives. Anecdotes, bits of conversation from the past–they all stay with me. But I want to add that the voices of the living are more important to me–in general and in the particular sense of my living here, outside of Jamaica. I continue to write about Jamaica, and so listening to Jamaicans here, or back home, or wherever they might be, is vital to me. It keeps me in touch and inspired. 



“Skillfully crafted . . . marvelously evocative . . . conveys a vivid sense of many worlds folded into one.” —Washington Post Book World

“Authentic . . . convincing . . . Cezair-Thompson writes with such talent, grace, and confidence.” —New York Times Book Review

“Seductive . . . powerful . . . a heartbreakingly rich, beautiful story whose characters hauntingly embody their country’s travail. A very accomplished debut.” —Kirkus Reviews
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. What does the title of this novel mean to you? Roy Landing “led [Jean] by the hand through the tall grasses alive with lizards and insects, to the gravestone of their ancestor General Crawford, who had fought against the Spanish for the island. This was a true story, he said” (p. 16). Why does Roy emphasize the world “true”? How does this word enhance the meaning of the novel’s title?

 2. Why do the immigrants to Jamaica (Mr. Ho Sing, Deepa, Rebecca Crawford, Jean Falkirk) feel so intensely Jamaican, regardless of where they came from and where they end up? 

3. Why is Monica unafraid of the violence around her? Why is she so contemptuous of fear? How did she get to be so hard? 

4. “However things turn out here, it will be bad for her. She has no interest in politics, no ideology, no allegiances; but it doesn’t matter; everyone has had to take sides” (p. 11). Why is Jean apolitical? How is she able to separate the essence and landscape of Jamaica– her home–from its politics? How does she manage to see them as two distinct entities? 

5. Rebecca Landing says that “the history of [ Jamaica] is a history of hell. It is also a history of grace terrestrial” (p. 25). Have you been somewhere else that embodies such extreme opposites? 

6. Why is Trevor so mournful and lost at the Christmas party at Cherry’s? 

7. In your opinion, is Jean’s decision to leave the island the right one? Will a life in America, with Alan, make her happy? Why does Jean believe, as she states on page 248, that she may never make love to a son of Jamaica? 

8. Jean thinks: “Paul and Lana are together, and I am to Paul what I’ve always been, that indefinable thing, not nothing, but not anything either” (p. 292). Can you define what they have? Why does Jean choose Alan over Paul when she so clearly loves Paul? Could Jean be happy with Paul? Do you think Paul loves her, in a way he couldn’t love Lana? 

9. Who of her ancestors tells her to stay? To go? Why? Who has the most compelling arguments? 

10. Jean asks “Who or what is to blame for Lana’s death? She wants a confession from this country, from its living and its dead” (p. 92). Is there an answer to this question? If so, what is it? 

11. What is the significance of the lost and broken possessions in Jean’s dream on page 10? 

12. Deepa believes that “the love you have in you heart for somebody– that is not enough” (p. 271). Do you agree with him? Is love enough for any of the couples in The True History of Paradise? 

13. At boarding school, Jean is drawn to Faye Galdy, who becomes her closest friend. Faye grows up to be a woman of strong political convictions, and holds “strange anger in her heart.” What makes Faye so belligerent? Why is she committed to staying in Jamaica and working with the disenfranchised, even putting her own safety at risk? How does the issue of race affect her?

 14. Mary “Iya ilu” cries “one day Congotay” (pp. 298—300). In the glossary, Congotay is defined as future reckoning. Do her words suggest retribution or redemption? Can Jamaica’s plight as presented in this book be traced back to the “original sin” of slavery? 

How does her ancestor’s story of loss, enslavement, and survival affect Jean? 

15. The last sentence of this book is “Panic and history are mine.” Is the ending ambiguous or certain? Does Jean leave the island? 

16. Does survival in this novel seem to be a matter of fate or resilience?  

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