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At the Full and Change of the Moon

by Dionne Brand

Two powerfully realized spaces emerged in Dionne Brand’s extraordinary first novel, In Another Place, Not Here: the immigrant world at Toronto’s rough edges and the hardscrabble villages of the Caribbean. In At the Full and Change of the Moon, the Toronto novelist and poet expands her range to span centuries and continents, linked by one woman’s descendants.

The woman is Marie Ursule, a slave on a Trinidad estate who in the early 19th century leads an impassioned “Act of Insubordination” – a mass suicide. Her little daughter Bola is smuggled away, surviving to conceive a brood who drift far from their beginnings. But if we expect a race of heroes to rise, vindicating Marie Ursule’s act of ultimate defiance, we will be disappointed and unsettled. In their blood her descendants carry slavery’s complex legacy of pain, shame, and hunger. “I would like a line I could trace,” a great-granddaughter writes to her dead mother. “I would like one line full of people who have no reason to forget anything.”

Bola’s progeny fan across the Caribbean, to America and Europe. One goes to war for king and country, returning a furious ghost. God and the devil move in to take joint custody of a boy named Carlysle. His cousin succumbs to a deadly spiral of drugs and grief while his sister finds respite selling sex in a shopfront in Amsterdam’s famous red-light district. Sex here is abstract, having little to do with pleasure or love, essential only to perpetuate life.

Brand’s acclaimed first novel – nominated for the 1996 Chapters/Books in Canada first novel award, shortlisted for the Trillium – was called a “poet’s novel.” Her second novel is equally rich and lyrical – so much so that early on we may grow restive. The opening pages circle back, building truth out of history and imagination, layering images of passion and death, transmuting Marie Ursule’s bent back into spouting whales and gibbous moons. The narrative gains momentum as Brand moves to the present-day lives of Bola’s grandchildren. The images grow sharper, textured with vivid interior reportage. The characters become solid and take up residence in us. Brand’s many fans will embrace this book; new readers will be won over by its sensuous magic and bitter wisdom.