Finding ‘Eden’ in Trinidad
Amanda Smyth is Irish-Trinidadian and was educated in England. She completed an MA in creative writing at the University of East Anglia (UEA) in the UK in 2000 and her first novel Black Rock was published by Serpent’s Tail in 2009. Black Rock was long-listed for the Waverton Good Read, short-listed for the McKitterick and Guyana Literature Prizes and won Le Prix du Premier Roman Etranger in France. Her short stories have been published in New Writing, London Magazine, and broadcast on Radio 4 as part of a series called Love and Loss. Her journalism has appeared in the Guardian, Irish Times, Stella, Grazia and Psychologies. She lives in Warwickshire with her husband and daughter. Her second novel, A Kind of Eden, tells the tale of Martin Rawlinson.
He is a stranger in a strange land, an englishman in Trinidad, and he is relishing it. He has asked for his temporary consultancy position with the Trinidad police to be made permanent, and is hoping to start a new life with the beautiful Safiya, and perhaps grow to understand this intoxicating, troubled country. His only problem is breaking the news to his wife, Miriam, and daughter, Georgia.
While Martin has found a new life in the Caribbean, Miriam counts down the months to his return, aware of, but not understanding, the growing distance between them. She and Georgia escape the English winter to visit Martin, and — Miriam hopes - to reclaim him. The week that follows will change everything, but not in the way any of them planned: they will learn how close paradise is to hell.
The following is an interview done by Rebecca Gray, commissioning editor at Serpent’s Tail. She has worked with Amanda Smyth on Black Rock and A Kind of Eden.
Rebecca Gray (RG): Authors are always having their work described by other people – whether it’s their editors, agents or reviewers — so I’d like to start by asking you to describe the book in your own words.
Amanda Smyth (AS): It’s always interesting to hear other people describe my work, because they see things I might not have intended. For me, A Kind of Eden is about a man in the midst of change, trying to escape responsibility and his past. He falls in love with Trinidad, with a young woman. But when three boys come to his villa and attack his family, everything changes. I was interested in exploring the impact of violence on a fragile family. Can we ever escape our past? I was also interested in looking at the deep feelings and attachments to people and things we may not even be aware of. So, for instance, in his head, Martin is wrestling with leaving his wife and daughter. But he is not fully aware of how much he needs them, how much he is a part of his daughter. She is him; he is her. And when she is hurt, he is crushed, destroyed. He has to make new decisions about his life. He has to take a good look at himself.
RG: Although I’ve published two of your books, by the time your first, Black Rock, came to me, you’d been working on it for a long time and it was pretty much finished. So A Kind of Eden is the first time we’ve really worked on the manuscript together and I wanted to ask you about your process – I know it was shorter than when you wrote Black Rock, but did the way you wrote the novel differ in other ways?
AS: As with Black Rock, the voice for A Kind of Eden came to me quite easily — those first few pages, and my sense of Martin and understanding of him. But I found myself struggling at times to really look at the consequences of the boys’ arrival in the villa. I didn’t want to visualise it — I was resistant — and it took a long time to get that scene, in particular, right. It’s very dark and upsetting. I really enjoyed having the interaction with you as my editor this time. It was helpful and I felt less isolated; writing can be a lonely business.
RG: This is a brave work from you because you’re taking on a really difficult subject: the high levels of violent crime in Trinidad and Tobago. So could you explain your connection to the islands and how that led you to write about this subject?
AS: My family on my mother’s side is Trinidadian and has been there for many generations. I’ve lived there on and off, and every summer holiday as a child was spent in Trinidad. It feels like my second home. I’ve always felt a sense of belonging and at the same time, I am an outsider.
And it’s this feeling of being an outsider that made me want to write about Trinidad. When I first arrive, I’m always struck by things: the extraordinarily bright bougainvillea, the coarse texture of the grass, the morning light on the hills, the sound of frogs in the night. But the dark side of the islands is also affecting. I have a vivid memory of a murderer who’d escaped when I was a girl, and everyone checking their gardens to see if he was hiding in the trees. My relatives were tied up and robbed by gunmen a few years ago; my cousin was on a kidnapping list. I lost my cousin in a road accident; it was senseless, a stupid accident. Trinidad has only just brought in drink/driving laws. There’s a line in my novel: cars crash in a way that makes it almost impossible to survive. It’s not a fact, but it’s how I see it. So, for me, all this pain and chaos is there alongside the beauty and wonder of Trinidad. And that’s what I wanted to look at with Eden.
RG: You’ve got all these forces pulling ‘stable’ life apart in the book – between rich tourists and poor locals, between races, all the baggage left from empire, as well as unemployment and drug use. And amongst all of these greater problems, you’ve got one white middle aged man who believes he can exercise control over not just himself but other people and his environment too. Could you explain a bit about how you managed to keep all of these ideas swimming through the book?
AS: In Trinidad, there’s a lot of crime, drug use, wealth, beauty, religion, rage, resentment, joy, patriotism. And I give a voice to some of these things through my characters. There’s the English, slightly arrogant protagonist, his wounded English wife, his Trinidadian girlfriend, who is a very strong young career woman, her mother, the police officers, the poor and desperate young boys who rob them.
These are all explored. We see the lives of those living in the luxury villa, and we also enter the house of one of the young robbers, meet his cheery grandmother in her pink nightgown, see their shabby home. They have nothing—no money, no real prospects. Writing about Trinidad makes it necessary to explore all these aspects; it is a place of contradictions.
RG: Martin isn’t a particularly likeable man, given that the first thing the reader learns about him is that he’s having an affair. I wondered how you ended up feeling about him? Do you think mid-life crises are inevitable and we should try to be more forgiving?
AS: He isn’t particularly likeable. But I feel compassionate towards him; he is trying to escape himself, his pain. And there are times when we’ve all done that. He’s also rather narcissistic; he’s seeing a side of himself that he’s never seen before. He is excited by life again. It happens to people – they get drawn into a new passion – religion, or a country, another person, a career and they want their lives to change. I’ve done it myself often enough when I was young – moved on from things. Martin has to face the consequences of his decisions, which is hard for him.
RG: Finally, I really love this title; it’s so evocative, and more importantly, ambiguous. How did you come up with it?
AS: Strangely, it came to me easily. I was really thinking about this idea of paradise and how it can never really be so, that there are always things to be wary of, hidden dangers, shadows. Martins’ journey is about this.