Pirate of the Caribbean

By Amy Alexander,
whose reviews appear monthly in Style
Tuesday, October 16, 2007


By Margaret Cezair-Thompson

Unbridled. 394 pp. $24.95

Weep not for May Josephine Flynn.

In Margaret Cezair-Thompson's engaging novel, May endures a galleon's worth of troubles, including tangled intrigue among louche, expatriate Brits, a home invasion by drug-addled thugs and the crude observations of a bisexual Frenchman who can't resist her resemblance to Errol Flynn, May's wayward, movie star father.

May comes through sad but wiser, poised to thrive on the north coast of Jamaica, the ancestral island home of her beautiful mother, Ida, and the adopted refuge of the scalawag Flynn.

Cezair-Thompson, author of "The True History of Paradise" and a creative writing instructor at Wellesley College, brings a smart, lilting voice and a sharp, quirky perspective to a tried-and-true literary formula, the sweeping historical epic. By taking the classic question familiar to all storytellers -- "What if?" -- and marrying it to the classic advice of fiction-writing teachers -- "Write what you know" -- Cezair-Thompson unravels a surprising yarn that is rich, salty and ultimately satisfying.

What if Flynn had fathered a Jamaican child during his years on the West Indian island? And what if that daughter decided to write a pirate story that draws on her life among treasure hunters, restless ghosts, proper Jamaican ladies and randy old Englishmen?

Cezair-Thompson convincingly threads May's pirate tale, dubbed "Treasure Cove," throughout the novel, with passages that sound as if they were scratched out by Anne Bonny or any other notorious buccaneers who trafficked the Caribbean in the 18th century.

"I shall now proceed to furnish you with the details of my misfortunes as they occurred with no exaggeration," writes May in "Treasure Cove." But as the multi-generational drama of "The Pirate's Daughter" sails along, her own life ultimately outstrips any imagined tales of pirate peril and derring-do.

As a Jamaican, Cezair-Thompson grew up hearing elders reminisce about Flynn and other white film stars and British and German expats who kept homes on Jamaica. It was said that Flynn -- upon his first arrival in 1946 at the tiny northern province of Port Antonio -- was so handsome that "fainting became epidemic among the young women of the island whenever they glimpsed" him, she writes.

The swashbuckling star of dozens of Hollywood films -- including the pirate blockbusters "The Sea Hawk" and "Captain Blood" -- Flynn had stumbled into acting after a misspent youth. In "The Pirate's Daughter," he quickly cuts a wide swath across Port Antonio. Enlisting the help of Eli Joseph, the taxi driver who picks him up after his yacht wrecks outside the harbor, Flynn decides to build a home on a nearby mini-island of wide beaches and clear streams.

As the Mediterranean-style estate takes shape, Flynn is revealed to be a complicated, exasperating fellow: rum-loving and freewheeling as he charms his way into Joseph's circle of family and friends. But he is also oblivious, selfish and heartless, racking up debt and impregnating the Jamaican man's 16-year-old daughter, Ida.

Flynn also conquers a bevy of actresses and female tourists, marries, divorces and marries again, all while continuously fretting over two statutory rape charges he had narrowly slipped out of in the United States. He is soon joined in Port Antonio by an old friend, the mysterious Baron Karl Von Ausberg, who will come to loom large in the lives of Ida and May.

Set in the golden years between the end of World War II and the onset of the political and economic upheavals that began under Prime Minister Michael Manley in the 1970s, "The Pirate's Daughter" sparkles with characters real and imagined: Flynn dominates the first half of the story, and is fleetingly joined by the likes of Tony Curtis and Marilyn Monroe. They all are rendered in vivid, three-dimensional portrayals, effortlessly fleshed out to such a degree that I found myself casting the imagined characters as long-gone Hollywood actors: Fredric March as Nigel Fletcher, the British novelist who befriends Ida and her family; Claire Trevor as Denise Fletcher, Nigel's crass, whiskey-swilling wife; and the burly, inscrutable Walter Slezak as Baron Von Ausberg.

Matters of race and class are weighty but presented here without commentary. Several scenes involving near-rapes, date rapes and grown men seducing young teens are stomach-turning in their intensity. But Cezair-Thompson allows her characters to work through -- or not -- the larger social and political implications of such violence. Likewise, discussions and descriptions of how Jamaica's formerly efficient, relatively harmonious economic landscape devolved over time into one of vast inequality and hardship are layered into the last third of the story with seamless power.

Beyond the Hollywood stardust that floats over the proceedings, it is Cezair-Thompson's deft evocation of the beauty and unpredictability of Jamaica, its topography and its people, that raises "The Pirate's Daughter" to a level far above the bodice-ripping historic epic.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company