THE Books

Ghost of Bridgetown

Graywolf Press, 2001

In Debra Spark’s second novel, Charlotte Lewin navigates the heat of Barbados—jewel-encrusted menorah in hand—and tries not to upset the delicate relations between the island’s Jews and non-Jews.

“A page turner—a break in the often artful yet sluggishly paced ranks of literary fiction.”

— Newsday

Graywolf Press, 2001

When Charlotte Lewin’s grandfather offers to send her to Barbados on a special mission, he believes he is sending her on a much-needed vacation, following the death of Charlotte’s sister. The mission seems simple enough: to return a long-forgotten, jewel-encrusted menorah to its rightful owner on the island. However, Charlotte soon finds herself navigating her way through unsettling racial tensions—between white Jews, black Jews, and the native community.

In the oppressive Barbados heat where the body can’t hide its own discomfort, Charlotte ends up sitting side-by-side at a bar with the ghost of Bridgetown himself. And when the startling ramifications of a bizarre parachuting accident threaten to unravel the precarious peace, it is Charlotte who struggles to find the answers. Her emotional entanglement with the people of the island leads to a search, not just to find a home for the menorah, but also for her own place in the world.


Praise

“Spark (Coconuts for the Saint, 1994) sets a vacationing Jewish woman’s journey toward self-discovery within the much larger context of social, political, and economic relations between Jews and blacks on the island of Barbados.

Charlotte Lewin’s grandfather sends her to Barbados with an antique menorah stored for years in his temple outside Boston. Charlotte’s supposed mission is to decide whether the menorah belongs to Bridgetown’s Jewish congregation or to the Bajan Institute, a museum devoted to native culture, which claims the menorah was crafted by a now-famous slave artisan. Her real mission, though, is to recover from the trauma of her sister’s death six months ago. After an awkward, talky introductory chapter, Spark juggles Charlotte’s narrative with that of Wayne Deare—an MIT graduate student who crossed paths with Charlotte in the Boston hospital where her sister died, then returned to Barbados to nurse his dying father. He now has a part-time job at the Bajan Institute, where his current assignment is to get possession of the menorah. Wayne’s conflicted thoughts and feelings are endearing, while Charlotte remains a stilted, self-conscious creation who seems like the author’s stand-in. Her first night in Barbados, Charlotte falls for a handsome young man the islanders believe is a “duppy” (a ghost not unlike the dybbuk of Jewish lore), but who is merely the ever-wandering son of the Lazars, leaders of the Jewish congregation. Meanwhile, Wayne and his brother have been hired by younger son Josh Lazar to parachute into a group as part of an anniversary celebration. When Josh’s parachute doesn’t open, Wayne’s brother is unfairly charged with murder. Tensions between Jews and blacks flare, and the menorah becomes a political football representing a fascinatingly ambiguous situation. Unfortunately, while she portrays the black community in all its complexity, Spark’s depiction of island Jews seldom rises above stereotype.

An ambitious, intermittently successful attempt to merge political musing, character study, and metaphor-studded ghost story.”

— Kirkus Review

“What begins as something of a ghost story, a shaggy-menorah story, winds up being a profound meditation on human hauntedness, the inevitability of ghostliness and grief. This is a beautiful, wise, and enormously moving novel.”

—David Shields

“A page turner—a break in the often artful yet sluggishly paced ranks of literary fiction.”

—Newsday

“A startlingly original work.”

—Multicultural Review

“Spark cleverly combines humor, mystery, and penetrating cultural insight.”

—Booklist

“An unsettling and mysterious journey into racial tension and conflict…”

—Caribbean Travel and Life

“Identity politics, however, is only part of the mixture that makes Spark’s novel so intriguing. As the plot thickens, so do the number of ‘ghosts’—not only the ‘duppies’ of local legend but also those that have fastened around Charlotte’s heart. Letting go of these ghosts is Charlotte’s task and ultimately her fate.”

—The Washington Post

“The acclaimed author of Coconuts for the Saints (1994) and editor of the short story collection 20 Under 30, Spark has written a multi-layered mystery, replete with creepy middle-aged men, scary letters and suicide notes, a mysterious death and rumors of a handsome young ghost who floats through the sweltering city of Bridgetown, Barbados, bedding women as he goes along. But that’s not all. Spark tackles race relations between Jews—black and white—and the native population in Barbados, all the while plumbing the weird, otherworldly feelings of grief and loss familiar to anyone who’s lost a loved one. If it sounds like too much for one novel, it’s not. The tangle of themes and narratives makes for a deep, thoughtful book that feels light, a joyous read shrouded in sadness.”

—New York Newsday


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