Margot lives with her mother and sister in the little Jamaican town of River Bank, but she works among the wealthy at a lavish hotel. Almost everything she earns, both through her work at the front desk and the sex work she does on the side, goes to the education of her little sister, Thandi. Margot and her mother, Dolores, dream of Thandi’s becoming a doctor, but Thandi wants to be an artist.
Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn shows how love can quickly start to look like abuse and how that cycle of abuse can pass down the generations. Dolores’s treatment of Margot, the details of which are revealed late in the novel, push her into sex work and away from the woman she was just starting to love. And it hardens her toward Thandi so that she appears to think of her more as a ticket out of poverty and less as a young woman with desires of her own. It may look like love—wanting her to succeed and thrive—but Thandi’s desires are never even a matter of concern. Yet without Margot’s pushing, where might Thandi have ended up?
Throughout the novel, the sisters struggle in their own ways to find happiness and peace. Some of these choices are hopeful, but others push them further into a cycle of pain. Thandi starts lightening her skin in pursuit of a false beauty ideal. Margot finally admits to her feelings for Verdene, a local woman scorned by her neighbors for being a lesbian. Thandi falls in love for the first time. Margot becomes a “boss lady” of a group of young sex workers. The question throughout the book is whether they will be able to free themselves from destructive patterns and find real, lasting happiness.
The story Dennis-Benn tells is complex. I haven’t even gotten into the real estate deals that threatens River Bank or Margot’s relationship with Alphonso, the hotel owner. But most of the complexity is in the characters, especially Margot. Much of the dialogue is written in a Jamaican patois, which some readers might find tiresome, but other might appreciate, as I did. (I suspect it would make an excellent audiobook.)
As much as I appreciated this book, I didn’t love it. The revealed secrets became excessive toward the end, and there were some gaps in the story that I wish had been filled. The final chapter is almost a postscript, and there were key moments before that postscript that I would have liked to have seen play out. And there were moments when Margot’s complexity edged a little too close to incoherence, especially as regards her true feelings about Alphonso. Some of this has to do with her own self-doubt and her need to dissimulate to achieve her ambition, but her actions didn’t always make sense, either as a reflection of her feelings or as part of her plans. So I wish that had been a little better, even though overall I thought the book was a very well-crafted debut.