Dick Slepy is troubled. As patriarch of the Slepy family, Dick longs to be the commanding force that tightly holds his wife and maturing daughters together. As a commuting pathologist, however, he has instead become a "weekender" who helplessly watches as his family becomes incrementally unglued.
As a child, Dick desperately turned to God and the Virgin Mary as stand-ins for his own less perfect parents. In the fullness of faith, "Dick carried his burdens to God through Mary, and Mary lifted those burdens away." But now that Dick is a man trying to raise his own four daughters, the clear guidance and adoration once found in his youth has become far more complex.
Dick's wife Seena is also working off the script of a poorly written childhood. Because she "had never been loved - not by a parent, never with depth," she struggles to mother her own daughters. As the girls grow up, Seena escapes by burying herself in her books to avoid the raw truths that surround her, including her favoritism of youngest daughter Amaryllis (nicknamed Yllis).
Yllis is aware that she is different from her sisters, and it doesn't take long for the reader to agree. Yllis is acutely alert that much is amiss in and around her home. Sympathetic yet strong, the dark and intuitive Yllis knows she has broken the fair Slepy mold, so she floats on the family periphery, both observing and absorbing the errors of her family. "For eleven years I'd been a consumer, slogging down others' pain, inhaling others' rage, drinking their love, jittering with their joy. Yet I'd never considered who I was."
Soon Yllis is not the only one to recognize that the Slepy family facade is crumbling. Betrayals and doubts of biblical proportion desperately drive Dick to seek out the counsel of the parish priest. Placing his faith once again in the hands of God, Dick recklessly packs up his family and heads to Africa.
Things begin to shimmer, quite literally, when the Slepys touch down in West Africa. Meldrum beautifully conveys the vibrant colors and pulsing, energetic rhythm of the land and its people. "The women's clothing is as the ground itself, as if the ground were picked up and wound and wrapped and tied. Red-orange and orange-red, the African earth shows like a magic carpet, bubbled beneath by a lifting wind."
Meldrum carefully crafts her African characters, and the shrewd Mawuli is no exception. Acting as translator and cultural interpreter, Mawuli cleverly bridges the ethnological gap. Through her colorful characters Meldrum works Africa's deep-rooted rituals, landscape, and history into the story's threads as Seena, Dick, and the Slepy girls fall under Africa's magical spell.
Amaryllis in Blueberry is divided into five books narrated through a rotation of voices. Though each individual voice of the Slepy family carries a strong and certain point of view, the shifting perspectives make it difficult to become too attached to any one character. In addition, the necessary transformation and cultural adaptation that takes place in the span of just a few months feels a touch forced; therefore the timeline Meldrum provides might prove a bit fragile for the more detail-oriented reader.
That said, Amaryllis in Blueberry works. Meldrum's style and story capture the reader's attention and easily hold it to the end. Amaryllis holds a trove of literary surprises and plot twists. More importantly, Meldrum's universal message of family resounds, "...souls don't stand alone. What makes a soul a soul is the shared burden and pain, the shared joy: it's the connection between us that carries on." The connections that we shareacross continents or just across the dinner tableare at the heart of Meldrum's richly evocative novel.
This review is from the March 9, 2011 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.
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