the generational impact of trauma

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

Women’s Prize progress: 8/16 (though I’m not aiming to read all 16)

Book Cover

In this novel, the worlds of wealthy tourists and impoverished locals collide in historical Paradise, a beach-side Barbadian village. When a robbery goes wrong on the night that Lala’s daughter is born, it sets in motion a string of devastating events. …Or does it? As the story unfolds, rippling out from Lala’s perspective to touch on all of those ensnared in the fallout, the reader learns just how deeply ingrained the roots of this problem lie, how easily perpetuated by the wealth gap between the summering tourists and struggling locals, and we begin to understand that Lala’s pain is not new, but rather a fresh iteration of tragedy and misogygny inherited by generation after generation in Paradise, nearly impossible to escape.

“She did not understand that for the women of her lineage, a marriage meant a murder in one form or the other.”

Right off the top, I have to warn you this is a bleak book. Personally, I don’t mind reading bleak fiction, and coming on the tail as this one did for me of an extremely bleak nonfiction read, I had a very positive experience here, though I understand others may want to skip this one for its difficult themes and content. I’ve rounded up some CWs at the bottom of this review, and am mentioning that list now in case anyone wants to check before reading further.

What makes this book so dark and haunting is the relentlessness of the trauma, the Point of the book being (in my view, as you may have surmised from the title of this review) being that in a place with such imbalances of justice and privilege, pain begets pain; that misogyny, abuse, and injustice are a breeding ground for more of the same, internalized by perpetrators and victims alike, to be passed down from one generation to the next to such a point that even a newborn doesn’t seem to stand a chance. Almost every chapter reveals some deeper layer of despair in this story as the narration flits between linked characters, exploring past ghosts that persist as present motivators. Though this book covers a specific incident, in a specific family, it speaks to a much larger societal problem in which trauma is the norm, she who can’t take it with dignity is further punished and ostracized, and there are very few viable avenues for recourse or even exit.

“And she leaves Lala in the cold quiet room on her back with her legs still splayed and no feeling at all at the intersection of her thighs and it is nothing like the bliss on the posters in the clinic or on the TV ads or the faces of the wealthy tourist women who walk with their newborns on Baxter’s Beach. Instead, she realizes that she has now brought another person into the dark, that birth is an injury and having a baby has scarred her and when the nurse asks her if she wants to go with her to see her baby in the ICU she shakes her head No...”

While the painting of this unhappy picture is the book’s strength, How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House also meets its primary downfall in this dogged focus on trauma through the ages; the narrative becomes so focused on what seems an exhaustive list of tragedies that the characters have little personality beyond their particular pains. Some characters want to leave Paradise, some want to rise above, some want to come back to experience it with better fortunes, but these longings are all tied to what has happened to the local characters here, reactions rather than innate ideals. They don’t have dreams or quirks that make them unique- they could all be anyone, dropped into the events that happen to them. Only their situations set them apart.

For example, it’s eerie to see that Lala could read exactly like her grandmother does, with only a number of years separating their fates; sure one earns her keep making dresses and the other braiding hair, but neither skill is mined for character depth and both cater in the same way to the tourists- this similarity makes the generational span of the family’s trauma abundantly clear, but it also, regrettably, comes across as though all of these characters exist not to represent people but to be vehicles of pain, suffering, and violence, first and foremost. If I could’ve changed one thing about this book, it actually wouldn’t be any of the tragedy in these pages, brutal though that can be; I would wish rather that the reader be allowed to know these characters a little better as individuals.

But even with this flaw in view, I think How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House is still fully worth the read. I was immediately gripped by the writing; for such a tragic tale, Jones delivers a compelling narrative with plenty of momentum, the writing smart and artfully circular, spiralling around its points in a way that builds up dread and anticipation before honing in for the kill. Every twist feels both surprising and inevitable- the perfect combination I’m always looking for in fiction. I also found the use of multiple POVs engaging and well-utilized; Jones allows us to see most of her characters at first from a distance, through someone else’s eyes; she piques our curiosity with circumspection and only then allows us a close glimpse into each new perspective, which expands upon or challenges what we’ve learned from other characters in a way that makes each new piece vital in its own right. The shifting narration gives the book a fluid, communal feel, though Lala is always at the center. Other characters include Lala’s grandmother, mother, husband, friend, the police officer who questions her, and the woman involved in the botched robbery. All of these perspectives add their own flavor to what is clearly a larger societal issue, though they also all feed into that single common thread- Lala.

“Mira Whalen closes her eyes. Just yesterday she had ventured outside, just a little walk on the beach, and had seen the neighbor’s dog die, had seen a woman too terrified to report an assault she had suffered. Mira Whalen did not think she could muster the energy to go outside again. Mira Whalen didn’t think she could muster the energy for anything.”

It’s a heartwrenching tale that offers little hope, though the fact that the main thrust of the story is set in 1984 with occasional flashbacks to even earlier years does seem to suggest that living conditions on Barbados beaches may have somewhat improved up to present day. Despite the time jumps and character switches I never had a hard time following along and personally I didn’t find the trauma too difficult to read. The robbery gone awry and segueing as it does into a difficult birthing scene sets up the book’s tone well, so that additional revelations feel somewhat expected, not intended to shock the reader at every turn. And the writing, the writing. Jones’s prose has such flow and rhythm, and the mechanics of her paragraphs continually impressed me. There’s a bit of dialect in the dialogue that’s easy enough to parse. For those willing to take the leap with the content, there really is so much to appreciate here. This is a book that will stick with me, I think.

CWs: murder, rape (including rape of minors), difficult birth, death of a child (infant), incest, physical (domestic) abuse, gun violence, death of a pet (dog), animal cruelty (cats), infidelity, misogyny

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I was halfway through this read when I assembled my Women’s Prize shortlist predictions, and that was enough to (correctly) include it on my list; I think How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House is fully deserving of its place on this year’s shortlist and well worth the read, for the right audience.

The Literary Elephant

13 thoughts on “the generational impact of trauma”

  1. I have to say I’m concerned about the lack of individuality, as character is the first thing I look for in fiction, but I will be reading this one when my library reservation comes through – thanks for such a thoughtful review.

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    1. Yeah, the missing individuality was really the biggest issue for me, and my main reservation in recommending this one to anyone already concerned about the trauma content; for me there was enough information about each character’s past that it was easy enough to differentiate them and then focus on the plot, but I could see it being a bigger deterrent for others. Though it’s also possible of course that another reader could find more depth to the characterization than I did- I hope that will be the case for you and that you’ll fare well with the read!

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    1. Thanks! I am surprised there isn’t more buzz about this one even with the bleakness, it really worked quite well for me. I hope that will be the case for you as well, I’ll be curious to see your thoughts when you get to it!

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  2. Great review! I have a bit of a weird thing for bleak fiction, so am actually really looking forward to this one – and it sounds as though it’s worth it for her writing alone. The lack of personality in the characters is a bit less appealing, but I think it can be so hard to strike the right balance when the tragic events require such a strong focus too. Thank you for all your insights and well done for correctly predicting it on the shortlist!

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    1. Thank you! I am also somewhat drawn to bleak fiction- I tend to find it very impactful, which I appreciate. This one definitely fit that bill for me, and I hope you’ll have as positive an experience with it if/when you pick it up. I do agree that it can be hard to find the right balance in fiction between plot, themes, and characters, especially when the content gets a bit graphic. It’s definitely to Jones’s credit that even while the characters lose a bit of attention the grim content doesn’t feel gratuitous.

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    1. Thanks! That’s definitely a good idea. This one was a definite improvement for me after the forced labor book, but since one was fiction and one nonfiction I started out trying to juggle them both and it was… a challenge. Best to reach for this one when you’re in a good frame of mind for it, I think. I hope you’ll find it as worthwhile as I did if you do eventually pick it up!

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  3. My connection to fiction is often emotional, so I don’t seek out bleak fiction. However, I’ll read grim nonfiction because then I’m learning something and don’t fear reality. In fact, grim nonfiction often helps me rethink how I approach certain topics, how I vote, etc. No Visible Bruises was a complete shift in my thinking, for example.

    It is interesting to look at how one event possibly changed the lives of the characters. It reminded me of my friend, who was doing his PhD out west while his fiancée and her mother were here. The apartment was broken into, and the fiancée and mother had to be removed, rehoused, get a new car, etc. and he ended up leaving his PhD program to care for them. It has been one thing after another since that event.

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    1. I agree with you about appreciating grim nonfiction as a way to improve understanding and change how we approach certain topics (I still need to read No Visible Bruises! I’m certain it’ll be a game changer for me as well!), but I think with fiction I’m always slightly detached. My parents really drilled the ‘fact vs. fiction’ thing into me as a kid so I wouldn’t have nightmares from watching scary TV or reading an intense book or whatnot, and I think that just sunk in so well that even when I have an emotional connection with fiction I’m always aware that the story isn’t real, while with nonfiction I cannot escape that knowledge for a moment, which can make it more difficult for me to sit with even if the narrative itself does not feel so personal.

      That does sound sort of similar! I’m sorry to hear that happened to your friend, what an awful situation. These characters also have to go through some drastic life changes that they’ll never truly be able to come back from, when slightly different timing on the night of the robbery might have prevented all or most of it. One of the main characters here is the robber though, so getting into some trouble is perhaps inevitable and not just a stroke of bad luck. Even so, things really do ripple out from that event, so that nothing is the same afterward.

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      1. I feel more detached from the nonfiction because there’s so little I can do about it. I once had a terrible boss who only did one good thing: she is has a PhD in psychology and told me that our brains aren’t designed to process information from across the globe. We become terrified of the suffering of people in India, for example. What can I do? I can’t personally send covid vaccines to India. I can vote for people who believe we should and can make it happen, I could raise money, but the emotional connection isn’t there so much as my morals.

        With fiction, that author is purposefully trying to make me feel connected, bad, sad, whatever. And they’re dang good at it!

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      2. That makes sense! I have heard that before about people not being capable of mentally processing every horror in the world going on all at once; we have to filter and choose what to focus on because we’re just not built to understand suffering at that level. And I can totally see where you’re coming from re: fiction vs. nonfiction. I think for me it’s just that I can sympathize with anyone very easily so in nonfiction my emotional connection is less about what I can or can’t do practically and more about imagining myself in someone else’s shoes and thinking about what their situation would feel like firsthand. I can’t stop myself from mentally putting myself into that situation and considering how I would or wouldn’t be able to cope personally, and that’s hard to sit with. With fiction, the emotional part of the story is more expected as part of the reading experience so I often take that for granted, and let that play in the background while I pay attention to other things about the read. I’m so interested in how fiction works at a technical level that the content tends not to get under my skin the same way. But I think I’m in the minority!

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