Back then, Hilaire treated his children like he treated his animals: a glassful of tenderness, a bucketful of authority, and a barrelful of “débrouyé zôt”- best figure it out yourselves.
A young woman ‘with a mind full of questions’ about her father’s past, and her family history in Guadeloupe (including Hilaire, a grandfather who lived to be 105), meets with her Aunt Antoine, the seventy-five-year old matriarch. A tall, confident, alluring woman with ‘a mixture of outdated elegance and anarchy” is more than happy to ‘open up’. Well aware she is the strongest link to the family, she has a beautiful manner in relaying the past. She tells her thirty-year-old niece that it’s like there is a whole century between them. She knows what her niece is hungry for, all the stories and understanding for where their place is, how people who must live in two worlds manage. With a three-month-old baby girl, it’s time to root through her family history, to learn just who they all are. So begins the tale of the Ezekiels, why some left and others remained filling a street in Morne- Galant (one of the islands that form Guadeloupe). Her father is known as ‘Petit-Frère’ (little brother) in a family of sisters, the women he’d rather run from. The narrator herself was born in France, a Métis girl (mixed race, a term rarely used) and a rarity in her community. Her father is West Indian and mother is French. Her family was ‘typical French’ and she, always a good student who kept a low profile, knows all too well what it means to be outside of categorization. Her curiosity fires up with others joking about her father’s accent, the ‘uniformity’ and peaceful coexistence of diverse lifestyles (for those willing to embrace French ideals) has often baffled her. She is confused about who she is. This is a novel about identity, how we define it, how those who settle in new places conform or refuse to. What is interesting is in the family history there was a divide when the Ezekiel grandfather (descendants of slaves) married a woman, from the family of the Lebecqs, who had been on the island far longer and were from Breton. There is mystery attached to them as well. She was a beauty that stood out in the poverty of Morne-Galant, her family were a people almost of a different world and the children were fearful of them. The reader learns how Hillarie charmed his way into their good graces, no easy challenge.
The children Hilaire and Eulalie have together grow up outsiders, both families seeing them as neither fully Ezekiels nor Lebecqs . Patriarch Hillarie remains to tend to the sugarcane, as his own siblings come and go from Morne-Galant. He holds tight to ‘absurd pride’, hurting his own family in the process, in favor of his extended family. For little brother, he grows up motherless, tended to by his sisters Antoine and Lucinde. They couldn’t be any more different in talents and temperament but both struggle their way to success. Through Antoine’s tale-spinning, she reveals how instead of money, they have their stories. With her strong ‘nom de savane’, to confuse the evil spirits, she goes by Antoine, not her baptismal name Apollone- as is the tradition. Antoine is the first to escape the island and all the unhappiness but not before caring for her brother, our narrator’s father. She bides her time and collects resentment toward those who stripped her mother’s things away after her death. The siblings each have their say, her father even warning her that her Aunt Antoine is exhausting, dirty, has her little superstitions and yet he lacks her great courage. It is to a cousin, Nonore (the Lebecq side) she turned to when she was just sixteen, hoping to make herself useful in Pointe-a-Pitre, just as poor a place as she escaped. Brave face forward, it is a fresh start, she convinces Nonore to try her out. Just when things go well, the husband returns, ruining it all.
Where Dogs Bark With Their Tales (the title also has meaning) is full of rich characters, the siblings natures are so different, even the way our narrator’s father describes his sisters made me laugh. Antoine baring her teeth when she came home to visit, Lucinde always going to great lengths to get what she wanted, the manner he remembers his father Hilaire- the people become real enough to jump off the page. The struggle out of poverty, the fight to make it when doors were closed based on skin color, the cultural divides, harassment women face and figuring out what is real from family fiction and legends. Antoine is far too clever to ever be a submissive woman, and the niece wonders why she couldn’t grow up in a more colorful, exciting place with traditions and history. Ponders on what she missed out on. Gorgeous story-telling. I was also intrigued by the writing about Antilleans and Black American culture, the commonalities with minority experiences but the difference between France and United states in role models, violence, etc. It isn’t something I have ever thought about until now. This is an intelligent read while also incredibly entertaining. There are tragedies and heavy loss, often someone will rise only to fall. The children took on a lot, and really did have to figure it out for themselves, especially missing their mother. It’s a trajectory that led to France. I fell in love with Antoine. The Guadeloupe of her family’s past is fading, the world is never the same for the descendants. Her family had to get used to concrete, over the lush land of their origins but they have kept so much flavor and life of their island. Yes, a beautiful read that my review isn’t doing justice to. Add it to your summer reading list.
Publication Date: July 5, 2022
Farrar, Straus and Giroux