Set in Jamaica, this is a coming of age story of Erna Mullins, a teenage Jamaican girl who is uprooted from her island (the only life she has ever known) to go to England, following the sudden death of her beloved grandmother, leaving behind her elderly grandfather. We follow her, as her new future unfolds, in a strange country, with a mother she barely knows and siblings to be reunited with. The next decade will be a complex journey of estrangement, new beginnings, friendships, and the uncovering of a long-buried secret.
Yvonne Bailey-Smith tells of the sad experiences and dangers of rape, family dysfunction/estrangement, family secrets, immigration struggles, racism, incest, PTSD, mental illness, and suicide in a family, as its members try to bury most of those secrets.
Written in Patois (/ˈpætwɑː/), known locally as Patwah and called Jamaican Creole, it would seem difficult at times for non-Caribbean readers to follow the narrative, but that didn’t take away the joy and overall details of the book. One just has to read it slowly for better understanding as the pacing itself is already a little slow. Written in three parts, the setting or time as indicated in the book gives us an insight into Erna’s character and its development.
I think the reason why people hurt their children is complex… I’m convinced it’s to do with their unresolved traumas. I suppose some people are very conscious about not repeating things that have happened to them and others less so.
Seeing the estrangement between Erna and her mother, as she refers to her as ‘Mrs. Violet’, rather than ‘my mother’ got me very intrigued as to why that was the case, and, as I got a better understanding of the reasons, I was left feeling disheartened. Having a child from the terrible experience of rape, the involvement of substitute care or the lack of care for children whose parents have immigrated to another country, causes unimaginable difficulties for both Erna and her mother’s emotional and psychological well-being. Immigrant parents and children are affected greatly as it alters the structure of families, especially when the child is left behind to be reunited at a later time, which is exactly what happened in the case of Erna and her mother’s estranged relationship, and which would lead up to terrible consequences eventually.
The effects of incest and rape are seen again in the case of Patsy (Erna’s half-sister). While the story unfolded on the page, I desperately wished Patsy had been able to get the help she needed. And that includes Violet, too. Outwardly, Patsy seemed to be okay and we get the impression that she turned out alright at the end because she started dating Fitzroy (the ex-boyfriend of Erna), but it soon becomes clear that that isn’t enough, that this does not mean that she has been able to heal mentally or emotionally.
Micro-aggressions, dating outside of one’s race, expectations, and stereotypes of Caribbean girls are highlighted too which I wished the author would have gone into more depth about. I wanted more clarification on why Fitzroy felt that Erna would have bene a virgin and subsequently dismissed her when he found out that she wasn’t. Erna only seemed to manage to get things working in her favour when it comes to education and supportive friendships, but not really much else. She missed out on the yearning for a motherly affection, she had every relationship ripped away from her, on top of all of the terrible experiences she has had as an immigrant.
Overall, I appreciated how the author managed to maintain the characters’ connectedness to their Jamaican roots, right up to the end. This was especially powerful when Erna made a trip back home, to pay homage to her grandfather before his passing.
The Day I Fell Off My Island tells the story of the consequences of estranged relationships between children and parents, the effects of immigration, untreated trauma, and despair.
*Thank you to Myriad Editions for the free digital copy of this book.