Sunday, November 21, 2010

Book 36, Anguilla: "A Trip to the Beach" by Melinda and Robert Blanchard

Back south again to the Leeward Islands now! This book's another chance discovery: I was convinced the library didn't have any books on Anguilla for the longest time, simply because I kept misspelling it like the Arabic surname, Angullia.

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Discovered the error of my ways and settled down with the Blanchards' self-help book Live What You Love: Notes from a Passionate Life, which I was fully prepared to hate, since it's a about them being an American power couple fulfilling their dreams by opening their own restaurant on a Caribbean island and thus inspiring others to live out their aspirations too; something I suspected I'd find infuriatingly kyriarchical after reading a 19th century Bermudan slave narrative.

Not so. I actually enjoyed the book quite a bit. I'm sure another reader would find it seething with unexamined privilege, but I guess I needed that shot of positivity and gung-ho-ness; I appreciated the levels to which they really showed love for their Anguillian staff, flying them all the way to Vermont to ski with their friends; and of course I was drawn in by the descriptions of the food: from Belgian waffles and devilled eggs to jerk chicken and endless Caribbean lobsters.

What bugged me was that there wasn't much about the experience of living of Anguilla itself. Not the Blanchards' fault, though. More the National Library's fault for not having copies of their original memoir, describing how they'd set up their resto to begin with.

What's a bibliovore to do? BUY THE FLIPPIN' BOOK OVER AMAZON KINDLE STORE, that's what.

And yes, I'm glad I spent the US$9.29, because this book hits the spot: descriptions of gorgeous floury sand, turquoise beaches, a workable alternative political and economic system (allowing for far fewer social problems than the casino and crime-ridden neighbouring islands nearby), boat races, hurricane devastation, and loads and loads of talk about FOOD.

Conch chowder, calf's foot stew, guava and passionfruit ice cream, barbecued ribs, johnnycakes, baby green beans, fried plantains, cornmeal pap, Thai red snapper, mahimahi, banana bread, salt fish, portobello mushrooms, dorado, crayfish, veal chops, sweet potato wrapped in sea grape leaves, tuna steaks with coconut rice cakes, ginips, wahoo, gumbo, mango, rum: yum.

Yet at the same time the memoir reveals how simplistic it is to read their story as a "follow your dream" narrative, because the tale includes all the anguish the couple go through when things go wrong - everything's more expensive for a non-Anguillian to rent, customs is a bitch, everything but the seafood has to be airflown in from St Martin or Miami (seriously, the carbon footprint of a gourmet meal at Blanchard's must be horrendous), and Melinda keeps on crying. Seriously.

But the writing's casual, with everything described from Mel's point of view, so it's pretty bizarre how this weeping never leads to soul-crushing depression the way it would for me and many of my friends. Just a glance at the gorgeous palm trees or a fat lady shopkeeper friend makes everything better.

(Was going to write "fat black lady shopkeeper", but that just throws in a bunch of weird racial tension into this mix which isn't really there. The way the Blanchards tell it, they're pretty damn integrated into the island's society, and treat folks as equals, though they themselves are rather richer equals, who get to fly back and forth between Vermont and Anguilla willy-nilly.)

(And really, the most fascinating postcolonial reading of the book lies in Anguilla itself. It's a laid-back hick country that's scared of losing its exclusive charm and native economic benefits, and it's willing to make sacrifices to keep its way of life at the expense of huge tourist and tech investments. This isn't a lazy native inheritance but a system engineered by a generation of revolutionary founding fathers in the sixties, one of which dies in the book, refusing to let the island be sidelined by the political administration out of St Kitts and Nevis. And meanwhile the people are happy and healthy and live to the age of 85 with the bodies of bronzed thirty year-olds. An alternative utopia, indeed. Or so they say.)

Gah, this writeup's going all over the place. Bottom-line is: this book's a good read. Don't take it as literal fact, though: the authors admit that they condensed the stories of ten years and two restaurants into the space of maybe 24 months and a single shack on Mead's Bay. Caveat lector.

Representative quote: Anguillians had watched St. Martin lose its innocence. Over twenty short years, the arrival of giant resorts and casinos combined with a poorly managed immigration department had made it a haven for unemployment, crime, and a population that had lost control over its own destiny. "Not in Anguilla," Joshua always told me. "Daughter, we will never let that happen here," he would say. "Never."

Next book: W. R. Groman's Oasis of the Sea: Sint Maarten Sonnets, from St Martin.

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