‘An explosive, swollen vitality’ [book review]

A review of Waiting for the Waters to Rise by Maryse Condé, translated from the French by Richard Philcox

The title of Waiting for the Waters to Rise, the latest novel by Maryse Condé to be translated into English, comes from a conversation between Babakar, the main protagonist, and his good friend Hugo Moreno. On evening walks to the cliff-top near their homes in Guadeloupe – the ageing Colombian in his wheelchair, Babakar pushing – Hugo looks out at the sea and says that one day the Caribbean islands will have disappeared beneath the ocean. The waters are imperceptibly rising; nothing can be done to stop them.

Cover image Waiting for the Waters to Rise

Hugo Moreno will not live to see this submergence, and nor for that matter will Babakar – the climate change they refer to is more of a background issue in this novel, though the full force of nature is felt again towards its end when Haiti is struck by a hurricane and earthquake. Instead, the rising waters of the title are present in a more metaphorical sense: as other forms of creeping human-caused destruction (political strife, poverty, prejudice, racism), and perhaps also as approaching death, which will one day overtake us all. Babakar certainly is plagued by thoughts of mortality as all the people he loves best – mother, wife, best friend, lover – are taken away from him one by one, yet despite its more morbid aspects, this is a novel that is radiant with hope.

‘It’s a well-known fact that life begins with a butchery,’ states the omniscient narrator of Condé’s novel in knowing tones as Babakar, a Mali-born doctor, arrives at a rundown shack in Guadeloupe to find a young Haitian woman dead in childbirth and her orphaned baby girl lying amid the carnage. Acting on an unnameable impulse, which readers may later come to recognise as a desperate need for love, Babakar snatches up the newborn and takes her back to his house. He names her Anaïs and legally adopts her, claiming to have had a one-night stand that means he is her father.

Though Anaïs is the catalyst for the events of the novel – later, Babakar and Movar, a young Haitian friend of Anaïs’s mother, will travel to Haiti in search of her relatives – the little girl is actually relegated to the status of exactly this: catalyst, not to say prop. As she grows we do catch glimpses, though mainly with reference to how Babakar and other characters interact with her, but for a novel that hinges so dramatically on the actions of women, Waiting for the Waters to Rise turns out surprisingly to be all about men. Babakar, Movar and their Palestinian friend Fouad all relate their stories to one another in great detail, while the peripheral cast of doctors, soldiers, rebels and politicians is also a largely male ensemble. The female characters in this novel are either dead – including Babakar’s own mother, who appears regularly as a ghost visiting his dreams – or don’t have very long to live, or are figures like Estrella, Anaïs’s mysterious aunt, in the face of whom men feel desire and fear in equal measure. This is surely not an accident: ‘Women stand on the sidelines of History,’ says the narrator casually, but in sidelining them so effectively in her story, Condé has actually underlined their importance.

It is a move that seems characteristic of Condé, who always has something to say even when she appears not to be saying it. Some of the main themes of the novel – racism and bigotry, not to mention how the world’s most developed countries might look on an island like Haiti – are woven so skilfully into the fabric of the narrative as to implicate the reader by catching us out in our prejudices. Whether it is the omniscient narrator or one of the main characters currently telling their story, deft asides about poverty, dirt, the uselessness of women and various other prejudices are inserted with seamless regularity so as to be constantly making us stumble. It is a clever way of asking us to question our own views, forcing the reader to take a step back from a story that otherwise would be nothing but evocative and enjoyable. But darker forces are at work here – namely how humans treat one another on a daily basis – and without being melodramatic or sermonising, Condé makes us see and face up to them.

Interspersed with the events of the narrative, which provide a potted history of Haiti in recent years, we have the main characters’ stories, presented to us as first-person accounts that take us to other countries like Mali and Lebanon. Though each begins with a ‘once upon a time’ feeling, this is soon belied by the substance of the tales: a catalogue of war, bloodshed, thwarted ambitions and grief. As a result, each character is searching for something – love, purpose, compassion from his fellow human beings – which, despite the incessant hope with which they move through the novel, they may find hard to put into words. Instead, they find it in brief flashes within their relationships with one another, though as the narrator is quick to point out, ‘life always has the last word’. Condé allows her characters to hope, certainly, but their various fates make abundantly clear that the reader is not going to be allowed a free pass this time.

Her characters struggle to articulate their own experiences of the human condition – in fact, Babakar wishes to be a poet who doesn’t have to use words – making Condé herself seem aware of the limits of language, yet the fact remains that she does have a marvellous way with words. This has been beautifully rendered into English by her husband and long-time translator, Richard Philcox, creating a novel that is strong and vibrant, filled with keen observations and a wry sense of humour. Condé describes the island of Haiti as possessing ‘an explosive, swollen vitality’ and goes on to portray it in exactly these terms – the words leap off the page, gleaming and vivid. A focus on smells, textures and the interplay of light and dark draw the reader deep into the story, and particular images become phrases to note: ‘the heat was already sticking to the skin like a damp hand-me-down’. When it is all threatening to get a bit too much, a dry remark on the hopelessness of life can make the reader crack a smile – ‘life is a mule that does exactly as it pleases’, the narrator offers at one point, a statement that within its particular context is as humorous as it is loaded with poignancy.

From expert shaping of narrative to firm characterisation and a use of language that comes as a gift to her readers, Maryse Condé is a truly remarkable writer. Absorbing, heart-wrenching and yet filled with hope, touching on a variety of themes that show humanity at its best and worst, Waiting for the Waters to Rise is a novel that has much to teach us.

Waiting for the Waters to Rise by Maryse Condé, translated by Richard Philcox, is published by World Editions on 5 August 2021. Many thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for so kindly providing a review copy.

5 thoughts on “‘An explosive, swollen vitality’ [book review]

      1. I came across her when she was long listed for the Booker International in 2015 when that prize was every two years and it was for a lifetimes work. She was the most interesting writer to me, and in an interview they asked the authors where a reader should begin if interested in her work. She said her essays if childhood Tales From the Heart and so that’s where I began and I’ve been reading a book a year ever since. Those essays were sublime and they really introduce you to her history (and lack of it) and her literary motivations.

        Victoire, My Mother’s Mother is great, her publisher forced her to call it fiction ( due to a bit of magic realism, as she imagines her grandmother speaking to her) but really it’s nonfiction, especially if you’ve read a few Caribbean women writers, dead grandmother’s speaking to their granddaughters is quite common. 😊

        Segu, considered her masterpiece is probably the book most known, it’s studied often in US universities. It is excellent.

        Crossing the Mangrove is wonderful, the first novel she wrote set in the geography of her upbringing, as most of work is set in places where she lived or travelled, and she was away from her birth country a long time.

        I, Tituba Black Witch of Salem is very interesting and another novel that makes the reader check your bias and expectations, I was really challenged by that one, especially as I read Ann Petey’s more compassionate account for YA at the same time, but wow, what an interesting revelation to read them comparatively.

        I am indeed an avid fan of Maryse Condé! And still learning the lessons she does out in her writing. I was fortunate enough to hear her speak a few years ago when she visited Aix. She’s incredible, virtually blind now, but still narrating stories that her husband translates and her grandson acts like her assistant at these events.

        Please do read more of her, if you search for her on my blog, you’ll see the range of reviews.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Wow, thank you so much for your in-depth response! I’ve added a number of these to my list and will definitely be heading over to your blog to read your reviews. It must have been incredible to listen to her speaking in Aix – how fortunate you could go. I do really admire what I’ve read so far and look forward to experiencing more of her work.

        Liked by 1 person

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