27 February 2012

The Boiling Season; Christopher Hebert

The Boiling Season: A NovelThe Boiling Season: A Novel by Christopher Hebert
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Alexandre is one of those people to whom things happen. A black born on an unnamed Caribbean island, he escapes from the poverty of his hometown slum to the hillsides, first as a footman and then as the driver to an important Senator. One of his duties is to accompany the Senator to lunch, where Alexandre waits in the lobby of the Hotel Erdrich; M. Guinee, the hotel's assistant manager, befriends Alexandre and takes him on a trip to visit the long-deserted Habitation Louvois (one of the island's former plantations). Soon Alexandre is leaving his work with the Senator behind and taking on the responsibilities of the estate's caretaker. Rebuilt with Mme. Freeman's money, Habitation Louvois becomes a resort, complete with private villas, a casino and rich whites from other countries.

Because this is a Caribbean island, there's political turmoil, with one president seizing military control, being assassinated and replaced by another dictator; gangs of disaffected youths become armies, challenging the political order. Throughout all this, Alexandre remains completely above and oblivious to these changes except as they affect the Habitation. Finally, the situation becomes so dire that Mme. Freeman lets every one go (except Alexandre, who will remain as caretaker) and ultimately one of the armies moves in, destroying all that Alexandre, the workmen and Mme. Freeman have built. In the end, however, Alexandre and the estate remain, ready to rebuild.

The passivity of Alexandre is in sharp contrast to the rise of his best friend, Paul, and to the situation around him. He's naive, focused solely on the work he's doing and not particularly interested in anything more (the paparazzi incident is telling). As a result, we see the violence and changes through his eyes, as inconveniences (no coffee) and destruction rather than as motivated by genuine social concerns or forces. On the occasions when there is a jolt to recognize that there is more than the estate and its running, he is quick to return to his rather ignorant state, making the story of what's going on seem blurred and muted.

ARC provided by publisher.

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