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February 19, 2021

How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House, by Cherie Jones

Do not let the beautiful cover fool you, or the setting in paradise: How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House, by Cherie Jones, is a brutal book, violent and disturbing, but there’s nothing gratuitous about the violence, and the storytelling is absolutely stunning.

It’s a story told in pieces about a group of people on a beach in Barbados, away from the pretty tourist snapshots. The night Lala gives birth to her daughter, her husband kills a white man in a botched robbery at one of those big houses on the beach, and so begins the story, but it also stretches back years and generations before it, with Lala’s mother and her grandmother Wilma, who’d been the one to warn Lala away from the caves on the beach “where bad man go when they die…men that are too bad to rest easy in their graves down in those tunnels harvesting souls for the Devil.” The sister in the story goes exploring anyway, because “what is the use of a tunnel if you don’t get to see where it lead?” And she narrowly escapes with her life, but she loses her arm, and Lala scoffs at that:

“Well I bet it not so bad having one arm,” says Lala. “She can still do things like everybody else, she can still get a husband and some children and a house.” / “Stupid girl,” says Wilma, “how she’s she going to sweep it?”

Sweeping a house is important when you live by a beach, for keeping up appearances, but it’s also a metaphor for the practical matters of day-to-day life, those things that provide safety and security, for taking care of oneself. And the women in this novel have all started out with disadvantages, as we discover as the story gets put together, piece-by-piece. What caused Wilma, her daughter Esme, and then Lala to be the way they are, the violence and trauma in their pasts which meant that they’ve never been able to count on anybody really, that their lives are tough and hardscrabble, and they’d take any avenue out of it, except that none of the avenues really tend to lead anywhere at all.

Take Lala, for instance, who ends up with Adan, who dotes on their baby, but beats her—he was her getaway from Wilma and her husband who’d preyed on Esme and driven her to her own sorry fate. And her connection to Adan’s friend Tone, which stretched back years, when she first discovered him working in the garden at the house her grandmother was cleaning, Tone suffering from something we don’t know what until the end of the book. Breadcrumbs, are what Jones offers her reader, clues and hints. The book is a mystery, but not in the conventional way, because we know who did it from the novel’s first pages. It was Adan in the big house with a handgun. But what happens next? And the way the rest of the story unfolds is tragic, mesmerizing, twisty and surprising, Jones managing a complex and nuanced treatment of even the most despicable characters (and her most sympathetic characters get to behave despicably).

There’s also the wife of the dead man in the big house, herself from the island and her husband had been her getaway, but now he’s been murdered and here she is, right back where she started. The police officer with the digestive issues who thinks he’s putting the pieces together, but the pieces are all wrong. The sex worker who’s fed up with the cop who’s been threatening to arrest her since she stopped sleeping with him. Tone, who’s been running his whole life and can’t catch a break, and it doesn’t look like his fate’s due to change anytime soon.

The ending of this book is devastating, but perfect. Literally uplifting, and I’d say spiritually as well, and it’s hardly heartwarming, but instead heartsoaring, propelled by the power of story, the magic of Cherie Jones’ characters and prose.

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