Unburnable, a novel published in 2006 by HarperCollins/Amistad, was written by the Caribbean author Marie-Elena John (born in Antigua), who was also an Africa Development specialist in New York and Washington, D.C. prior to turning to writing. Unburnable is her debut novel. It is historical fiction, a murder mystery, neo-slave narrative, and multi-generational saga.
Covering the African Diaspora, and offering a reinterpretation of Black history, the narrative of family, betrayal, vengeance, and murder, follows the fictional character Lillian Baptiste as she is willed back to her island home of Dominica from Washington, D.C. to finally settle her past. Haunted by scandal and secrets, Lillian Baptiste fled Dominica when she was fourteen after discovering she was the daughter of Iris, the half-crazy woman whose life was told of in chanté mas songs sung during Carnival: songs about a village on a mountaintop littered with secrets, masks that supposedly fly and wreak havoc, and a man who suddenly and mysteriously dropped dead. After twenty years away, Lillian returns to her island of birth to face the demons of her past.
Allusions to history, geography and science
Set in both contemporary Washington, D.C. and Dominica, and switching back and forth between contemporary and historical stories, Unburnable weaves together the Black experience with Caribbean culture and history. Among the themes in the novel are the Caribs (the Kalinago), the Maroons, the history of Carnival and masquerade, the practice of Obeah, the fusion of African religions and Catholicism, resistance to slavery, and post-colonial issues.
The novel has received favourable book reviews in the United States and in the Caribbean. Essence Magazine's book editor, Patrick Bass, selected Unburnable as one of three "Patrick's Pick's", commenting that "Unburnable marks the arrival of a major new voice in fiction." In Black Issues Book Review, Denise M. Doig called the novel's author "superb". Dalia King of The Trinidad Guardian in her review of the novel commented, "John weaves the weighty issues of race, sex and politics into the fabric of a historical Dominica without allowing the essential story of 'Unburnable' — that of a woman searching for her past so that she may find herself — to get lost in the novel’s own self-importance".
Awards and nominations
- Bass, Patrick (May 2006). "Patrick's Picks". Essence magazine.
- Doig, Denise M (1 May 2006). "Unburnable review". Black Issues Book Review.
- King, Dalia (9 December 2006). "Burning Up the Book Shelves". The Trinidad Guardian.
- "Review collection". ChickenBones: A Journal for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes. Retrieved 2007-03-14.
- 2006, USA, Amistad / HarperCollins (ISBN 0060837578), Pub date 11 April 2006, hardback (First edition)
- 2007, USA, Amistad / HarperCollins (ISBN 0060837586), Pub date 1 May 2006, paperback (forthcoming)
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