Author Lauren Francis-Sharma is the daughter of Trinidadian immigrants, and after visiting her grandmother's homeland, she decided to set her first novel there. Though I've traveled up and down through the Caribbean, I've never been to Trinidad & Tobago, a dual island country unique in the region for its multi-ethnic heritage and industry beyond the usual tourism. Oh, and of course its tradition of Carnival. Trini Carnival makes all of those poor folks in New Orleans who celebrate Mardi Gras look like a child's clumsy efforts in comparison.
'Til the Well Runs Dry opens in the tiny village of Blanchisseuse in the 1940s, where Marcia Garcia is a 16-year-old seamstress trying to earn enough money to keep food in de bellies of what's left of her family. We soon meet Farouk Karam, the man whom she will grow to love and hate in equal measure, often simultaneously. Farouk and Marcia share the narration for the first part of the novel until their second daughter adds her voice to the chorus.
If I were to describe this book in terms of its plot, it might sound very eventful--there are secrets here that politicians might kill to keep, not to mention rape, incest, murder, imprisonment, black magic, corruption, and abandonment--but that would give the wrong impression. These plot points are present, but they're not the defining aspects of this novel. It's much quieter and more intimate than that. It's the story of a family: a mother whose hard knocks began long before her first two children go missing and her husband leaves her; a father whose thrall to his own parents prevents him from being the father he is capable of being; the four children who are the issue of this relationship that is more defined by tumultuous obsession than love.
Take this family and drop them in an ever-shifting political setting as Trinidad seeks its own way in the world separate from the British Empire, and you end up with a story that is as colorful and multi-layered as the book cover would suggest. Francis-Sharma's writing is so evocative of this tropical island that I could see, hear, taste, and smell everything she was describing. Though the narratives themselves are third person, limited points of view, the dialogue is rich with the speech patterns and idioms of Caribbean patois.
I loved reading this novel and I was completely swept up in the complications of this family and their ties to each other, knotted up so tightly and frayed by the coastal salt water that it would take a machete to hack them apart. More than anything, Francis-Sharma was able to convincingly portray what it might be like to love somebody so fiercely that surviving such a love could only change and harden and temper you into a fierce creature yourself.
I recommend this book for readers who value strong and complicated female characters, those who enjoy historical fiction in an unusual setting, and those who, like me, have an unquenchable thirst for Caribbeana. There was much about this book that reminded me of early Toni Morrison, and honestly, is there higher praise that I could offer on that score?
NB: I read an advance reading copy of this book that was provided at my request by the publisher. It will be published in the US by Henry Holt on 22 April 2014.