Carol Sammy’s debut novel, Dilemmas of Deokie, captures the spirit and culture of Trinidad through the story of the young woman, Deokie. Though Deokie is too old for this novel to properly be termed a coming-of-age story, it is certainly the tale of a coming-of-self. Gradually, over the course of the novel’s anecdotes and scenes, the character and quandary of Deokie emerges: a young woman who loves her country and wants to make it better, yet feels helpless to do so.
The strength of the novel rests in its ability to evoke place and setting. Sammy, who grew up in Trinidad, has a masterful knack for capturing the dialect of the region. She does so in a manner that feels authentic rather than condescending, as when one character criticizes Deokie for holding herself aloof from a party: “Like you’s a Trinadad tourist, or what. Like you don’t have time for we kind o’ thing. Is here you living, family. You can’t turn up your nose at it. This is what we is all about. Loosen up yourself li’l bit, you not better than anybody else here.” The speech, honest and patient, goes a long way in creating character in the book.
So, too, does the place itself. From the opening pages, which describe the houses and social strata of Trinidad, it is clear that the island is going to play a huge role in the novel. Deokie lives in a rural area, though not too remote, and her world is filled with colorful neighbors, dense jungles, and brothers who catch and try to tame wild creatures. Into this distant setting, the present-day intrudes in strange ways: Lydia, a girl-friend of Deokie’s, has an email relationship with an American man that pulls her away from the island; characters take out cell phones to make calls; and Deokie’s mother at one point says, “‘You don’t see how this weather gone crazy?’ Mrs. Ramoutar asked him in friendly consternation. ‘Global warming,’ she declared miscellaneously.” At times, these pieces feel like interruptions into an otherwise timeless world, a reminder to the reader that technology and Western culture have made deep inroads in most places.
The plot does not manage to center around one conflict, but, as the title promises, a series of dilemmas. Much of what Deokie faces are the problems of any young woman in any place, and so, when her epiphany comes, her desire to “fly off to a place where life could be grand, was not a situation one witnessed every day,” it feels rather flat, like the novel hasn’t built up to anything new. Her revelation that “it was her duty to contribute to her society in a way that was wholesome and meaningful, but she must find the way first,” emerges as less than earth-shattering and certainly less than unique.
The rewards of this novel are not to be found in its main plot-lines, but in the sub-plots and details. Sammy’s writing is full of subtle humor, as when an overweight neighbor laments the current skimpy fashions, the “‘thin piece o’ string women calling costume nowadays. You could imagine me jumping up in that? Like you want all o’ Trinidad to suffer seizure or what.’” Or the delightful character of Cornbird, an aimless young man who walks with “long, jaunty, half-crazy strides, his floppy arms swinging.” There are many such lovely pockets of description, like the men who “swigged back the rum as they played, the lighted cigarettes protruding between their fingers as they handled their cards with masculine delicacy.” At many turns, Sammy finds just the right words to capture a defining image.
Overall, Dilemmas of Deokie is filled with too much overt telling and not enough tension to make the main arc of the story captivating. But the novel is otherwise rich – in its dialogue, in its setting, in its ability to create character. For those not acquainted with the culture of Trinidad, this is certainly a book to check out.