It might just be me — and that’s not at all unlikely — but I can’t say for sure.
What I mean is, it’s clear that Christopher Hebert is a novelist in every sense of the word. He has the proper ambition and, with his hefty debut novel The Boiling Season, has found a subject worthy of that ambition. The story is centered around Alexandre, a lifelong slum-dweller who has always dreamed of being more than he’s destined to become in the Caribbean ghetto. Through determination and work ethic, he moves up the ranks of servile positions until he is the estate manager for Madame Freeman, a white American woman who buys a long-decrepit jungle preserve outside the city and intends to turn it into a jet-setting resort. This she does, although it is plan that the city and its myriad corrosive problems cannot be kept out by a gate — particularly when the oppressed masses from the slums are the very people keeping guard of the estate that mocks them with its opulent excess. Soon Alexandre’s job title transforms from estate manager to its protector, and finally he must confront the idea that anything so anomalous can (or should) be safeguarded for its own sake, when the costs of doing so become increasingly dear.
I am glad and appreciative of an author who can bring these topics to light: constant political corruption, the endless string of disappointment for the island people seemingly born into this world to be marginalized in every form, and the hopelessness of forces either within or without that nation to do much of anything to prevent what history is doomed to repeat over and over again. It’s a book that asks us upon what our values pivot, and whether we would do as Alexandre does. Would we try to save the one last gleaming piece of existing island paradise that is perfect when untouched, but ultimately artificial in its beauty and preservation? Or would we concede that such preservation is inherently dishonest — that the revolving door of the past must be accepted as fact if we hope to make any difference?
Here’s where it might only be me. I’m pleased with what Hebert has undertaken. Someone, after all, should be writing this way about a suffering we’re inclined to lose consciousness of. But the way the story is fed to us via Alexandre, I could never quite get beyond the idea that the book was written in order to present the conundrums of this island. Which isn’t a fault in itself, but as a reader, I was always seeing the scaffolding from the start. I was always a step ahead, figuring out whole pages or chapters in advance what would happen, and tapped my watch impatiently as Alexandre struggled to figure it all out, the manor crumbling around him. It’s a 400-plus page novel, and books of that size obviously won’t be constant action, nor is it Hebert’s style to write that way. His is a debut that centers around the conveyance of a message and an ultimatum, and in this way he excels. But Alexandre, who we see from ages 20 to 50, does not grow proportionately to his decades of aging. Instead, his moments of enlightenment feel a bit manufactured to serve the plot. His slow shift from insider to outsider in interactions with his former friends and neighbors is handled beautifully. However, when he becomes a stand-in father figure toward one of the slum-dwellers, Hector, the development of their relationship is not shown to us as much as summarized, seemingly because it’s easier to convince us of what we don’t get to see. Same goes for Alexandre’s newfound friendships, love interests, etc. With the lack of dynamic personality he suffers, I can’t accurately picture what these conversions look or feel like. At first I thought that a third-person narration tighten these gaps, it’s clear to me now that this story is, and can only be, Alexandre’s. I just wish his moments of dialogue, inner thought, and correspondence were less wooden.
So while it might just be me, I’m happy to say — and I’m not the first — that Hebert’s debut is a sign of good things to come. His prose is the type that can find a vast audience, that can wake people up to things and make those truths a beautiful and haunting place to wake up in.
And that was the moment I began to laugh…I was laughing because laughing was always what I had imagined them doing, the ghosts and descendants of everyone who had arrived upon our shores as conquerors and left in defeat, who spend the rest of their lives and centuries watching us crumble and destroy ourselves… I laughed now to think of the countless times I had asked myself, how could all of this not serve as proof to them of how right they had been in their efforts to subdue us? See, I had imagined them chuckling, do you see what barbarians they are?
Read The Boiling Season to be shaken, and read it to be put to work on feeling, as any solid narrative will disseminate, a particular and stirring awareness.