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The Black Peacock

by Rachel Manley

Rachel Manley has made a career out of writing about her illustrious Jamaican family, including her prime-minister father. Best known for her 1997 Governor General’s Literary Award–winning memoir, Drumblair: Memories of a Jamaican Childhood, each of her non-fiction works has focused on her relationships with the older relatives in her family: grandfather, grandmother, and father. Now she brings that inspiration to her first novel, set on a tiny island in the Caribbean.

Daniel, a famous poet and columnist from Trinidad who is writing a book on Christopher Columbus, has invited Lethe, his long-time Jamaican muse, to stay with him. The two have been in an unresolved, but magnetic, relationship since university. Following the death of her father, Lethe comes to Daniel’s home carrying with her a manuscript about the life of her legendary grandfather.

The Black Peacock is languidly told, with two duelling voices that play off each other. Both characters grew up motherless with emotionally distant fathers, are peripatetic by nature, and are haunted by ghosts. And as writers, neither can help searching for the perfect metaphor – for the islands, the creative process, or their unsteady relationship. Lethe is the more poetic of the two, whereas Daniel is more matter-of-fact. Time shifts frequently from present to past as the couple revisits their never-quite-completed love story.

Manley slowly unfurls a somewhat labyrinthine narrative, revealing the couple’s shared history – and secrets – in jerks and starts. She often introduces new characters by name long before explaining their significance, a habit that leads to frustration on several occasions. Otherwise, The Black Peacock tells an engaging story of a love affair in a state of suspended animation. Themes of grief, family, and the writing life course through a novel in which “living is just a long corridor of echoes.”