In November, National Book Critics Circle members will begin nominating and voting for the fourth John Leonard award for first book in any genre. In the run-up to the first round of voting, we'll be posting a series of #NBCCLeonard blog essays on promising first books. The nineteenth in our series is NBCC board member Jane Ciabattari on Nicole Dennis-Benn's Here Comes the Sun (Norton).
Jamaican-born Dennis-Benn highlights the complex social stratification in Montego Bay in her finely orchestrated first novel. She sets up a mother-daughter duo–Delores, a single mother, who sells souvenirs to tourists, and eldest daughter, Margot, who works long hours at a luxury hotel (and provides foreigners who pay her well “to be their personal tour guide to the island of her body” in her after hours). Delores and Margot have set their hopes on the youngest daughter, Thandi, and are putting their earnings into her education at a Catholic school because they believe one day she will “make everything better”. Margot is ambitious–and easily manipulated by her boss, the resort's white owner. While she is climbing the ladder, acquiring power and a new lover, young Thandi falls in love, a disaster for her family's dreams for her. Dennis-Benn captures the fragile hopes and dreams of her characters while making clear the hard-edged stigmas and class distinctions that limit their possibilities. Here Comes the Sun is a rich, exuberant, sophisticated novel– an ideal candidate for the John Leonard award.
Jane Ciabattari writes the Between the Lines column for BBC.com and contributes regularly to LitHub, NPR.org, the Boston Globe and others. She is vice president/online and a former president of the National Book Critics Circle, serves on the advisory board of The Story Prize and is a member of the San Francisco Writers Grotto and a founder of the [Flash Fiction Collective]. Her articles and book reviews have appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the Guardian, Bookforum, Salon.com, the Paris Review, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Chicago Tribune, Ms., Poets & Writers Magazine, among others. She is the author of two story collections, Stealing the Fire (Dzanc Books, 2013) and California Tales (Shebooks 2014). She can be found on Twitter @janeciab.