David Gaughran’s blog – Let’s Get Digital – is probably best known for his posts on self-publishing, and the publishing industry in general. I admit, David is one of my favourite go-to people when it comes to most things technical or financial.
However David also reads and writes fiction, and the other day he wrote a post about ‘good books’, asking if we could recommend any. In that post he named two books he had read and greatly admired. ‘Because We Are – a novel of Haiti’ was one of them.
I have just finished reading ‘Because We Are’ by Ted Oswald, and I have to say David was right – this is an exceptional novel. It’s not perfect, but it worked in all the ways a good story should : it created memorable, well-rounded characters, transported me to a place I have never seen, and made me care about both.
The story is set in modern day Haiti, and follows the lives of two children living in the slums of Haiti just before the big earthquake that took the lives of so many. Libète is a girl of ten. Her best friend Jak, a boy stunted by chronic malnutrition, is also ten. They are out, playing in the marshes when they stumble across the bodies of a young woman and her baby.
The young woman has been ritually mutilated, raising the spectre of Voudou, but this is not some lurid, sensationalist story about the practices we in the West call voodoo. This is a story about murder for gain. It is a story about poverty and politics, degradation and courage. It is a story about real people living their lives as best they can in a world where smart phones and abject poverty exist side by side. But most of all it is an uplifting story about honour and honesty as told through the eyes of children. In many ways, their growth parallels the growth of a nation.
On a more mechanical level, the writing is lyrical, and evocative without being at all self-indulgent. The dialogue is excellent, peppered with just enough Kreyol [Haitian version of French] to feel authentic without making the reader work too hard, and the characters are vivid. Even the minor characters seem to leap off the page, and there is nothing two dimensional about them. These are all the great things about the story. Sadly there are also a couple of mechanical issues I found quite confusing, and both relate to the way the author handled flashbacks.
I have no inherent problem with flashbacks, so long as it’s clear what is current and what is not. In ‘Because We Are’, the flashbacks to Libète’s earlier life are not immediately recognizable as flashbacks. This led to a lot of ‘oh this is another flashback’ moments on my part. Each time this happened I lost my connection to the story.
The reason the flashbacks were so jarring was because the author often told them in the present tense – “The small girl takes a step down from the large rock.” This is not the conventional way of writing flashbacks, however I could have gotten used to it if only the cues had been consistent. But they were not. Sometimes the flashbacks would not be in the present tense but the current storyline would be.
These inconsistencies made the story harder to follow than it should have been. And yet… despite getting a bit annoyed at times, the story itself was so good, so compelling, it never occurred to me to stop reading. That, to me, is the mark of an exceptional story, and that is why I am reviewing it – because it is too damn good to dismiss for a few mechanical faults.
It’s not often I criticize a novel and then turn around and tell you to read it, but this is one of those times. ‘Because We Are’ is a gem. Read it!