This book is beautiful.
Firstly, the cover is very attractive and engaging; and the hardback inside the slip cover is bright yellow, a colour that makes us think of the sun and the sand in Trinidad, where the novel is set. Secondly, the language and descriptions in Light Falling on Bamboo are really lovely. From the first chapter I was swept away to the heat and spectacle of Trinidad as central character Michel Jean paints the landscape and mourns for his mother. He has been away in England and Europe for many years, training as a painter, and he returns to Trinidad to say goodbye to his dying mother. She is only in the first chapter, on her deathbed, but she is an anchoring force for Michel Jean throughout the rest of the book, reminding him of what is most important in life, and to stay true to himself.
Author Lawrence Scott takes the real life of artist Michel Jean Cazabon as the basis for this novel. Extensive research lead him to recreate Cazabon’s life story as a fictional tale, but with plenty of accurate historical details thrown in – names and places, as well as colonial figures on the island. Scott was born in Trinidad and obviously has a real love and affection for the island, as well as an understanding of life there and the beauty of the place.
He expresses this through Michel Jean, who loves Trinidad, but finds it hard to readjust to life there, having lost his mother and left his French wife and his children in Paris. He is also tormented by the presence of Josie, his illegitimate half-sister (her mother was his parents’ slave before emancipation) with whom he has several youthful affairs. Now she and her ageing mother run his house, and his father refuses to acknowledge either of them. Michel Jean lives alone with them, haunted by the past and trying to cling on to the present.
He finds solace in painting, and it is his skill and passion that lead to a new life on the island, new connections, and new friends. The novel covers the years 1848 – 1900, encompassing most of the life of Michel Jean, and certainly his life post-Europe, although he does return there twice during the course of the novel to see his family. As his life changes he muses on the relationships around him and the meaning of family – as well as the complex issues of slavery, colonialism, race and the concept of freedom.
On her deathbed, Michel Jean’s mother tells him that freedom is not as simple as it sounds – just because slavery was abolished and the slaves were ‘freed’, that does not mean that they are really free. Race and class still dominate society, and Michel Jean encounters plenty of casual racism, against both himself and his mixed race children. While these are important and interesting issues, Scott goes over them a few too many times, and it can feel like he is repeating himself. As readers we are not ignorant of these issues – most of them still exist today in some form or another – and there are moments when you feel you have read this all before, a few pages back.
The same can be said of the relationship between Michel Jean and Josie. The first third of the book creates a wonderful tension in their relationship and we yearn to know more – but not enough is given to the reader and frankly it gets less intriguing as the novel continues and Michel Jean’s attentions are turned elsewhere.
Light Falling on Bamboo is a very well written and vividly imagined book, with beautiful passages philosophising about life, and love, and home. In my opinion in went on too long without good reason, but I still enjoyed it. Sad and mesmerising, with a good dash of trans-Atlantic history thrown in for good measure.
Light Falling on Bamboo was published by Tindal Street Press on 6th September 2012. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.