Hope in the Unseen

Reviewed by Tina McElroy Ansa
Sunday, August 5, 2007


By Colin Channer

Akashic. 181 pp. Paperback, $13.95

Estrella Roselyn Maria Eugenia Thompson, the heroine of the short, beautiful novella The Girl with the Golden Shoes, is one of those characters who steal your heart. It seems not exactly correct to call her a character, however. She feels too real, too genuine. She is more like home folks, those friends and relatives you know from the inside out.

In fact, much of Colin Channer's touching story shimmers with truth and authenticity. The Girl With the Golden Shoes is essentially a Caribbean fable that holds a universal vision of self-discovery and resonates with the local patois floating on a soft, salty breeze. It is the story of 14-year-old Estrella, who, in 1942, sets out in her only dress, fleeing her seaside fishing village for the "city," in hopes of work and a pair of shoes. Threatened and abandoned by her family and ostracized by her community, she makes her way alone. The sin for which she must pay is that of seeking the unknown, whether on the pages of a book or in the voice of a stranger from under the sea. Her fellow villagers fear that a six-week run of bad fishing was caused by Estrella's brashness in engaging a scuba diver on the beach. They "felt as if the girl had put them under siege, a sense that if they didn't act, then history would remember them as people who'd watched and waited while their way of life was slowly laid to waste." But, as the exiled Estrella makes her shaky way -- by foot, by bus, by horse, by truck -- readers realize what the villagers did not: An explorer is simply what she is. She can't help herself.

Channer, the Jamaican-American author of two previous novels and a short story collection, conjures up unforgettable images. On the first leg of Estrella's trip, her "stubby, silver bus" crawls "north along the wild Atlantic coast . . . like a beetle on a trail of gum."

Estrella's story is one of longing, strength, wrong-headedness. And through it all, the reader falls under the sway of a flawed but brave heroine who can be hard as flint or as vulnerable as a newborn. "What did it mean that all her thoughts of fishing hadn't frozen into hate? You have to harden your heart, she told herself. Otherwise, you might go back."

Yearning is a leitmotif in this novella, and Channer hits every note of that theme with heart-wrenching specificity. At one point in her journey, a hungry, lonely Estrella spies a comforting scene:

"Across the street she saw the orange light of bottle torches glowing in the stalls. . . . She could also see the silhouettes of dogs and milling people, and smell the garlic marinade in which the cuts of shark were left to soak all day before the old negritas dipped them in the cornmeal batter, turning them to make the grainy mixture cream the meat, which they'd slide into the iron pots that had been used by their grandmothers, and the batter-covered meat would settle in the oily depths where all the salty flavor lurked and gain a brittle shell."

Parts of Estrella's journey are difficult to endure. At the end, the author has readers on their seats in "a whitewalled Buick Century" right along with the heroine, fearful that she is being taken to a fate even worse than she envisioned. Still Channer is such a master that the reader feels safe in his hands.

The Girl wth the Golden Shoes is a sparkling gift, the tale of a meager, shoeless, raggedy abandoned Cinderella whose hardships make her all the wiser. "I see for myself now," Estrella muses. "All man is man. All flesh is flesh." ยท

Tina McElroy Ansa's fifth novel,

"Taking After Mudear," will be

published in October.

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