By Margaret Cezair-Thompson

Dutton. 321 pp. $24.95

Reviewed by Michael Upchurch

There's a lot packed into Margaret Cezair-Thompson's Jamaican-set first novel -- a lot of history, a multitude of characters and a mounting toll of casualties, as Cezair-Thompson evokes an island on the verge of civil war.

Sometimes there's too much, and episodes that ought to feel devastating instead are too closely crammed together to have their intended effect. Still, by its final pages, The True History of Paradise packs a powerful -- and rewardingly complex -- punch. Cezair-Thompson's edgy portrait of flawed characters facing communal unrest in a polarized nation rings true, and her eye for the intersection of personal and public crises proves impeccable.

The year is 1980. Michael Manley, leader of the People's National Party, is in power, but his socialist policies are being violently contested by both the Jamaica Labour Party and certain malcontents in the Jamaican military (covertly egged on by the CIA). Many of these so-called political factions, however, are merely anarchic street gangs whose terrorizing of a helpless populace has little to do with any specific political agenda.

As the novel opens, its heroine, Jean Landing, who loves the Jamaican capital, Kingston, "the way one might love a dangerous, delinquent brother," is seizing her chance to leave it for the relative calm of New York, where her lover, Alan -- twice her age, white and married -- awaits her. Her job as a Spanish-English interpreter at the Ministry of National Security has placed her uncomfortably close to the targets of anti-government assassins. Her cross-island journey toward escape, escorted by longtime family friend Paul Grant, follows the death of her half-sister.

In traveling with Paul, she toys painfully with the possibility that he, not Alan, is the right man for her. All the while, their hazardous road trip serves as a framing device for a family history told mostly in flashback -- a history that tellingly mirrors Jamaica's hybrid heritage as immigrant nation and former slave colony.

Jean's ancestors come from Africa, China, Jewish Spain, Germany and the British Isles, and in Cezair-Thompson's hands the ramifications of race and racism on this eclectic mix are limned in fresh, unpredictable ways. After all, when your family, over the years, has embraced half a dozen or more cultures, various degrees of wealth and poverty, and every known skin tone, no easy patterns of bias or privilege emerge. Some of them see Jamaica as "an Anansi country -- a monstrous spider skilled in trickery of every kind." Others see it as a "blundered paradise." Jean herself deems it "a country of almost blinding brightness, not a place of subtle light or subtle reckoning." Cezair-Thompson does justice to all these viewpoints, and conveys with them a vivid sense of many worlds folded into one.

Jean's access to the past comes in two forms. The first, and more successful, is through the family lore of her uncles and aunts (one of whom hosts a salon that serves as "a second home to Jamaica's intelligentsia"). The second, less credible device is Jean's clairvoyant tuning into ancestral voices going back as far as eight generations. While the device feels strained, several of the first-person narratives it facilitates are among the book's best passages -- diligently researched, skillfully crafted and marvelously evocative of early Jamaica.

The wrenching heart of the novel is found in Jean's immediate family life, shaped by the early death of her charismatic journalist father, Roy, and the subsequent lifelong feud between her half-sister, Lana, and their mother, Monica. Businesswoman Monica is a hellishly daunting character, "brave, vain, pragmatic, ferocious, hurt, and hurting," and as volatile as that string of adjectives makes her sound. As for Lana, she's a troubled siren, attracting a disastrous series of men with her beauty, talents and ricochet moods. Lana's problems are made worse by her repeating of her mother's embittering mistake: getting pregnant at 17. Jean tries to steer a middle course between these two, but the stress of coping with political extremes on top of family extremes pushes her to crisis point.

The rendering of Jamaican patois is deftly done. The descriptive detail, both of the island's natural beauty and its submission to the terror of military gangs and roadblocks, is sharp. There is occasional humor, too, in Monica's high-handed dismissal of anything about the island she doesn't like. Of course, the irascible, combative Monica would never leave Jamaica. She may be impossible to deal with, but she's also, unlike Jean, an absolute rock, making for a richly dramatic contrast between mother and daughter.

The True History of Paradise is stuffed with more than it can comfortably accommodate in a mere 300-odd pages. Yet out of its clutter, the voices of ordinary souls, trapped in circumstances beyond their control, drive the author's point home with clarity. "You want no part of this," one says. "You don't want to take sides. You think you have a choice? Listen." Cezair-Thompson listens closely, and passes along all that she hears.

Michael Upchurch's novels include "Passive Intruder" and "The Flame Forest."