At its heart a Jamaican story but told in the spirit of Steinbeck, Broken Gourds is a successful foray into a kind of storytelling that should resonate with fans of American fiction. Mirroring the natural beauty of the Jamaican island it is set on, this book simply yet completely explores the dark and the bright sides of human nature. What makes Beresford Mclean’s novel even more remarkable is that this is his first published novel after a twenty-year career in engineering. Fortunately, during those twenty years McLean’s sense of creativity, imagination, and storytelling skills were neither compromised nor neglected, and the resulting novel is a smooth-flowing and vivid tale involving the basic human emotions that make life so complicated.
At the start of Broken Gourds, things are simple and clear. The colonialists rest in their comfortable homes high on the hill overlooking the native inhabitants down below and generally rule the land and keep the peace. The village below consists of the original inhabitants of the island who work the earth, commonly shun formal education, and have a close bond between family, generations, and friends. Within this community, there is a hierarchy stacked upon another hierarchy which no one has any business or desire to dispute or contend. Dada, a hapless person more prone to daydreaming than helping out on the farm, seems the least likely to shake things up in Albion. Indeed, judging by his third grade education, his lack of interest in things the other boys his age enjoy, and that even in his late twenties he still has no eye for ladies, makes Dada the least likely person to rearrange Albion’s social structure. But after Dada is kicked out of his home, he has something of an epiphany and is blessed with the ability to heal people’s problems, whether physical or psychological. Now with his role in the village established and incidentally at the top of the hierarchy, Dada proceeds to tear down Albion’s social, religious, and economic fences.
It is in this social climate where McLean’s storytelling flourishes. With the themes of religion a constant background, new friendships and loyalties are formed, salvation and sacrifice are found in the most unusual and unexpected places, and power and greed are fought in the open as well as within one’s self. Throughout, the book shows that the strength of community and family are founded on the individual, but when taken together the power is unmatched. McLean’s straightforward and vivid narration simplify the complex issues, making them easy to comprehend but not lessening their impact. His characters are strong but flawed and never behave too predictably. Over the course of the book, the characters are molded and formed by McLean to fit exactly into the story, which itself slowly and purposefully evolves to keep the reader’s interest. As the story evolves, the characters evolve with it, each complimenting the other nicely.
Even though this is McLean’s first novel, he does not shy from dissecting the emotions that make people’s lives complicated and rewarding. His style of writing, though somewhat weak in dialogue, makes digesting these topics easy. There is something any reader can take from this book and one can only hope that his sophomore effort matches the accomplishments of this book.