The various manifestations of magic take a while to emerge, but Ross states the basic premise early, in characteristically lilting language. “Everyone in Popisho was born with a little something-something, boy, a little something extra. The local name was cors. Magic, but more than magic. A gift, nah?” Xavier, the first character we meet, has a gift for food; he can cook meals that nourish an individual’s particular needs and has been chosen as Popisho’s “macaenus.” That job means “he had a scant twenty years to cook a meal for every single adult man and woman on Popisho. To delight a whole nation with his food.” Why 20 years? Does he need to cook meals for people who were fed by the previous macaenus? How specifically does he know what food they need? Readers who ask those kinds of questions may have a hard time with “Popisho”; Ross tends to be vague about details of the magical features she vividly establishes.
And those details certainly are vivid. We meet Xavier on the first anniversary of the death of his wife, Nya, one of those unhappy souls who “died alone, without proper burial rites, [so] the carcass wandered for years, rudderless, rotting and shrinking.” The warning signs of the “sweet hurricane” that provides the novel’s apocalyptic finale are sensed by the “indigent” who make up Popisho’s outcast lower class: “The earth vex . . . the soil stank of ancient warning.” In between those events, we learn that Popisho’s inhabitants eat butterflies, which have the same effect as alcohol, but “it took practice to pluck them from the sky and eat them alive. If you didn’t know how, you found yourself coughing dust, a puzzled creature beating wings in your throat, scales sticking to your teeth.” Even when you’re not quite sure exactly what’s going on, Ross’s imagery makes a visceral impact.
Butterflies are a relatively harmless vice, but giant moths are like heroin: “The moth eater is always moved to begin again,” an obeah woman tells Xavier. (Obeah women “curate magic” and identify each child’s cors.) Xavier knows; he still hungers for moth even though he gave it up years ago with the help of Anise, the women he loved more than the woman he married. Anise nowadays has troubles of her own. She has miscarried four pregnancies, and when she refuses to try again, her husband, Tan-Tan, refuses to have sex with her. Xavier and Anise are two principals in a teeming cast of characters that also includes crooked governor Bertie Intiasar; his estranged gay son Romanza; salty female radio host Hah; former macaenus Des’ree, Xavier’s teacher and onetime lover; and a done-with-it prostitute named Lyla who throws away her “pum-pum.”
That last word names the body part that is Lyla’s stock in trade. A laboriously extended sequence that begins with the pum-pum of every Popisho woman falling out (for no apparent reason) marks the moment when Ross’s extravagant style crosses the line into absurdity. It reaches a nonsensical pinnacle when Romanza’s twin, Sonteine, whose own pum-pum has been swept away in a river, discovers and inserts Lydia’s castoff, to the mutual delight of the nervous bride-to-be and her virginal fiance, Dandu.
Silliness like this muffles the serious issues Ross also addresses, most connected to a plot strand tracing the orange graffiti springing up across Popisho to expose wrongdoing by Intiasar and others. The graffiti turns out to be a collective effort. Only by banding together, Ross suggests, can ordinary people force a reckoning with the powerful; Popisho’s regular citizens must abandon the prejudices against the indigent they have feared and despised for centuries. The climactic Miss Pretty Girl International Beauty Contest, an annual event that is also a debating match, makes the same case for unity. Listening to the debaters and the crowd’s appreciative responses, “Anise remembers what Miss Pretty is for: opens her eyes to be with the women around her, sees the hugging and winking; mmmmm-hm, celebration.”
Ross writes throughout with such juice and verve that she can be forgiven for her novel’s occasional cloudiness and excesses. “Popisho” will please and excite anyone who appreciates literary ambition and risk-taking.
Wendy Smith is the author of “Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940.”
By Leone Ross
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 480 pp. $28