Big Island, Small by Maureen St. Clair, plays out in real time, a slow awakening of the soul. A friendship blossoming. A passage of time. Life isn’t as it happens.
The format of the book is unique. Written almost as a journal, a daily account of the day, of feelings, of how the situation is viewed by the two main characters of the novel. Two sides of the story, alternating chapter by chapter, are told from the perspective of each girl. This is a format that would backfire greatly if each of the characters weren’t as properly developed, or if the narrative itself wasn’t as interesting. (Think about reading somebody’s diary…it can be incredibly mundane, or revelatory.)
The story revolves around two girls bound by a common thread. They both come from a Small Island (at different times in their lives) and have now made Big Island their home, where the promise of a better future lures folks from shores of Small Island. Think of it as the big city life vs. growing up in a rural setting.
Sola is one of the girls. She’s been living in Big Island longer than Judith. When Sola first meets Judith, she is absolutely enthralled by her. Long rasta dreads. Fair skin. A confidence that is unnatural, but inevitably attractive. There’s a flippant way about Judith that just makes her more endearing to Sola.
Then there was that kiss.
Unexpected. Waiting to be forgotten as soon as it happened. But, Sola can’t forget about it. She’s never felt that way before. But just as quickly as it happened, it must be forgotten. Or so says Judith…who doesn’t want to discuss it anymore, claiming it was a mistake. They remain friends.
Time passes. People change. But do they?
A thread of jealousy still lingers. An awkwardness when the other is dating someone else.
There surely is a taboo in society, but can you put your feelings aside, packaged tightly in a box and wrap the box up with a string? We all know the answer to that.
The format of the writing and the voice of the characters is what makes this book one that will be debated by social justice pundits everywhere for years to come. The topic is of course of utmost importance, as its significance remains relevant in a world where discrimination is all too real.
Growing up in that world is particularly hard especially for the young adult, who is constantly challenging societal norms and reconciling their sense of identity during the coming of age years that we live through.
What I also personally loved about this novel was the cultural references that were on point. Perhaps, it is not something that I would have understood had I not recently attended the Royal Ontario Museum’s (ROM) recent exhibition “Here We Are Here: Canadian Contemporary Art”. One installation in particular, Michele Pearson Clarke’s “Suck Teeth Composition” highlighted the significance of vocalized disdain as exhibited in the Afro-Caribbean culture and the sprawling diaspora. Historically, this is a way of expressing different kinds of emotions, whether happy, or sad, or when frustrated. It is a cultural norm, and ingrained in the linguistic expression of a people.
This book is ingrained in storytelling. In part it is iconoclastic: we immerse ourselves in the characters’ journeys as they must dismantle their assumptions and biases around race, class, gender and sexuality. Societally, we continue to struggle to make amends with injustices of the past hence there’s a universality to Big Island, Small that is relevant to us all.
— Sukasa Reads, May 2018