Call me crazy, but I’m starting to think “We Found Love” was not actually written about a tumultuous romantic relationship, as we’ve assumed all this time. Instead, I believe Rihanna’s 2011 hit was actually a prophecy about the day I discovered Nicole Dennis-Benn’s novel Here Comes the Sun in a Hudson Booksellers at the Newark Liberty International Airport.
Without any prior knowledge of the book or its author, I grabbed it off the shelf because of the bright and charming colors and the smattering of rave reviews on its cover. And I’m so glad I did. Here Comes the Sun is a beautiful and quietly devastating novel that will seep into your skin and lodge itself in your heart.
Set in a rural area of Jamaica, the book follows a family of three women—two sisters and their mother—who struggle to preserve the things that are most important to them, fighting fierce and personal battles that demand sacrifices, and which constantly put them at odds with one another. What begins as a compelling tale of familial discord on a small island soon blossoms to include complex topics such as the very real judgments and dangers that plight queer people in Jamaica, as well as the lasting trauma of childhood sexual abuse.
By now I should know not to judge a book by its cover, but I was nevertheless fairly shocked at how dark many of the plot lines ultimately turned out to be. But I imagine this was partially Dennis-Benn’s intention: to reveal the stark and complicated reality of poor families on an island that most tourists consider to be paradise. She is a masterful writer (it’s hard to believe this is her debut novel), so the dramatic peaks and emotional lows of the story never feel cheap or exploitative. In fact, the twists and turns are harrowing because they are so believable; because both the bonds and the dysfunction of a small family, as well as the steep cost of upward mobility and survival, are portrayed in such a riveting, gut-wrenching manner.
The narrative unfurls slowly, jumping between the perspectives of various characters, whom we eventually understand are all intimately connected. Margot is a beautiful and ruthlessly ambitious young woman who is willing to sacrifice her body and soul in order to earn a promotion at the fancy resort she works for. It’s not greed or vanity that motivates her (for the most part), but the funding of her younger sister’s education. Thandi is the family’s last hope for financial security, and Margot and their mother Delores dream that she will one day become a doctor. However, Thandi instead dreams of becoming an artist—a lifestyle that is nearly as inconceivable to those in their community as Margot’s budding relationship with another woman.
At 350 pages, the book is not exceptionally long, but the layering of stories and development of characters was so rich and well-executed that I felt like I really knew them. As a reader, I came to care deeply and root for Margot and Thandi (although Margot is extremely complicated and, at times deeply unethical, traits that make her a lurid and compelling anti-heroine). Dennis-Benn also avoids making Delores, the fallen matriarch, a straight-up villain: she eventually fleshes out a backstory that does not necessarily redeem the woman, but at least leads us to understand why Delores has made the choices she has. In terms of style, Dennis-Benn’s writing reminded me a bit of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie‘s, in that her prose comes across as both stunning and effortless. She constructs crisp sentences that often seem like small miracles—yet the narrative moves swiftly and efficiently, and she never gets bogged down in excessive lyricism.
I can’t recommend Here Comes the Sun enough, but I would also advise all readers to approach with caution: despite its glowing yellow and orange cover, this book is a meditation on the feelings of hope and, perhaps more significantly, hopelessness. But while this might not be the ideal beach read, it is deeply powerful and necessary literature. Do yourself a favor and get lost yourself in the world and the words of someone who seems fated to become one of the greats.