A Tall History of Sugar

Curdella Forbes

Canongate, £14.99

Review by Alastair Mabbott

Although it’s a love story of epic proportions, the initial impact of Curdella Forbes’ fifth novel comes from its depiction of Jamaica in the 1950s and 60s.

Opening in 1958, four years before independence, A Tall History of Sugar is suffused with the sticky, cloying sweetness of sugar, the island’s biggest industry. The grains get into every crevice, sicknesses caused by over-consumption are endemic, a drystone wall built “in the English fashion” is even held together by molasses.

Equally inescapable is Jamaica’s relationship to “the motherland”, the UK, drilled into generations of schoolchildren by imported British teachers and reflected in the varied skin tones of its inhabitants. But even here there is no place for the pigmentation of Moshe Fisher.

A baby of unknown parentage, he is found in bushes behind a hospital by the childless Rachel, a Yahwehist and thus “a strong believer in signs, kabbalah and cryptograms”, who names him after Moses and raises him with her husband Noah, a fisherman. The child has black features, but skin so thin and pale that it has a sheen of translucent blue. “With his pale skin, one sky-blue and one dark-brown eye, his hair long, wavy and bleached blond in front, and pepper-grainy in back”, he seems “to represent some kind of perverse alchemy” to the villagers of Tumela. Rachel keeps him close to her side until he’s old enough to go to school.

Moshe is quiet and reserved, a delicate child who bruises and bleeds easily. He forges an instant friendship with Arrienne, a girl exactly a year his junior, on his first day at school. So close that they can’t just finish each other’s sentences but read each other’s thoughts, their bond is deep and permanent. We realise it’s Arrienne who’s writing this story, tormented by the loss of the silent language between them as they grow older and drift further apart – art becomes his new friend, painting “the one fluent language he would ever speak” – and by their physical separation when 18-year-old Moshe stows away on a cargo ship to seek out his biological father in England.

A Jamaican living in Maryland, Curdella Forbes recreates late-70s Brixton as vividly as late-50s Jamaica, through Moshe’s (unanswered) letters to Arrienne and the remnants of her empathic connection with him. Enrolling at art school, his first step to becoming a famous painter, he soaks up the atmosphere of London’s Afro-Caribbean community in the wake of the Notting Hill riots, though without ever feeling fully at home among white or black people.

With Arrienne becoming politically engaged at home, Moshe is on an “equivocal zigzag” around Europe, becoming keenly aware of the ironies of a life dictated by the legacy of colonialism.

The densely descriptive, linguistically rich A Tall History of Sugar is full of such ironies, but its heart is the thread connecting two people who believe they are the halves of a single whole, and the intense, exquisite agonies of their obsessive love.