Land of Love and Drowning by Tiphanie Yanique
Riverhead Books, 2014; 350 pp
Reviewed by Courtney Craggett
Tiphanie Yanique’s Land of Love and Drowning is a family saga of magic and saltwater and forbidden love. On the Virgin Islands in the early 1900s, Captain Owen Arthur Bradshaw’s ship goes down on the coast of Anegada. He dies in the shipwreck, but he leaves behind a wife and three children, two daughters from his wife, and a son from his mistress. His wife dies soon after, and the two Bradshaw sisters are left as orphans. The older Eeona raises young Anette. Although the sisters are now desolate, Eeona tries to teach Anette to cross her legs and speak like a lady and, above all, to make a respectable match. Always nearby ready to thwart Eeona’s efforts is the sisters’ half brother, Jacob Esau.
Both Bradshaw sisters find the worst men to love – fathers, brothers, fathers’ lovers’ husbands. Eeona begins it with her secret relationship with her father, but the book spends most of its energy exploring Anette’s relationship with Jacob. “People can need each other like water,” she says when they first fall in love. She knows that Eeona disapproves of her relationship with Jacob, but she doesn’t know why. The two have a child together, and they promise to be married.
Throughout the book both sisters must remember who they are and where they have come from. Anette’s revelation of Jacob’s true identity comes late in the book. “My life just get ruin. Everything I love just get make a sin. Something coming like a wave and is to drown me this time.” Her true relationship to Jacob is not the only history she must unearth, though. She must remember who she is and where she belongs if she is to help the island in its upcoming fight for social justice.
The magic in this book is difficult to pin down. It flows through the pages. Yanique has created a world in which magic feels infused into the salty air. “Men who spend their lives on water know that magic is real,” writes the author. The characters here know that magic is real, although it comes mostly through legends and landscapes and small fissures in reality. Crowds part for Eeona like water. Jacob’s mother’s hair stands out like snakes when she is upset. Anette knows when someone is coming before they have arrived. There are stories too, stories of the mermaid-like Duene people that Eeona tells to her niece. There is magic, too, in the writing itself. Lightning claws through the window, as though hunting,” she writes in an early chapter. Yanique crafts each sentence with a care often associated with short stories, and the island comes alive under her pen.
The book captures island life – the rumors, the isolation, the incest. Ultimately, though, it is a book about belonging. Eeona feels burdened by her sister after her mother dies and thinks, “Family can be like an anchor. An anchor may tether you. An anchor may also pull and sink your ship.” Years later, though, when she has grown and is beginning to age, she wonders, “Was everyone related in these Virgin Islands? Was that the strange secret to freedom and belonging?” The question of freedom and belonging is the one that the Bradshaw sisters pursue throughout the novel, through their love affairs and magic and the social inequality that they help fight. Ultimately, the sisters find the answer in each other, in their children, in their history, and in the island they call their home.