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Dancing Lessons

by Olive Senior

Olive Senior’s debut novel is the latest addition to the author’s acclaimed fictions of postcolonial Jamaican culture, which include the 1986 story collection Summer Lightning, winner of the inaugural Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book. Narrated in the voice of Gertrude Samphire, the novel takes up another of Senior’s perennial themes: estrangement. It is also a bildungsroman of a sort, told retrospectively from the point of view of a seventysomething woman.

We first meet Mrs. G – she does not declare her full name until near the end of the novel – at Ellesmere Lodge, a seniors’ residence catering to the frail but wealthy, although she is neither. Her eldest daughter, Celia, from whom she has been estranged since the girl’s early childhood, placed Mrs. G at Ellesmere following the destruction of the older woman’s rural home in a hurricane.

Mrs. G’s recollections, which she commits to a diary given to her by Celia, tell of her tortured youth, her unfulfilling years as a mother to three other children, and her abuse at the hands of a philandering husband who never expresses love for her and from whom she never asks for any. Mrs. G unselfconsciously introduces every person in her life by skin tone, facial features, and hair texture – Senior’s way of telegraphing the importance of these delineations to the spirit of the time the character came of age. 

The story moves back and forth from Mrs. G’s childhood to the present, guiding the reader through pre-independence Jamaica right up to recent years. References to gang violence related to the drug trade, political corruption, and a police shooting that parallels an actual incident in the country’s history, mean that at times the novel feels too much like social and political commentary rather than narrative.

However, Senior employs insight and dry humour throughout, which renders the more overtly political aspects of the novel tolerable, and avoids the potential for the more didactic elements to fatally mar the story.