Flashback and Resilience in Cherie Jones’s How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House
Jan 11 ● BY Charlene Caruthers
Cherie Jones’s debut novel How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House interconnects various storylines to explore the heart-breaking and nail-biting journey of four individuals whose lives are forever changed by a burglary gone awry.
Hailing from Barbados, Cherie Jones is an award-winning fiction writer, winning the Commonwealth Short Story Prize in 1999 and both the Archie Markham Award and the A.M. Heath Prize at Sheffield Hallam University in the U.K. Her collection of interrelated stories, set in a small community in Barbados, won third prize at the Frank Collymore Endowment Awards in 2016.
The heart of Jones’s debut novel takes place in 1984 in the paradise tourist town of Baxter’s Beach, Barbados. At the center of this story, readers will find Lala and her husband, Adan, two locals living on the beach among the newly-built mansions and the wealthy tourists who inhabit them. Lala is desperately trying to escape the endless cycle of violence that has followed for her family for generations, but her plans take a turn for the worst when a petty crime sets off a sequence of events, turning the lives of everyone involved upside down.
The novel opens with a cautionary tale that depicts the dangers that befall young girls who disobey their mothers by lurking through the Baxter Beach tunnels. This tale is also used to foreshadow the fates of two primary characters in the novel, Adan Primus and Tone. The tale warns that something sinister and evil lurks within the tunnels, and, should anyone explore the tunnels, they will then be possessed by this evil. This sinister presence plagues both Adan and Tone and greatly influences their choices that will ultimately become a matter between life and death. Tone refers to this sinister presence as The Thing That Eats Him and suggests that it lays dormant within him. Tone also feels that, because of its prolonged hibernation, it is ultimately his fault that he cannot provide the woman he once loved with the protection that she needs.
How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House speaks true to the burdens associated with race, class, and toxic relationships. Readers will ache for these characters as their journey explores the after-effects of traumas such as rape, domestic violence, gun violence, drugs, and death. From the first page to the very last, readers will continually ask themselves, what’s next? The story is told through multiple perspectives; as the characters are introduced, they are given their own chapter, so that the reader can familiarize themselves with each one in turn. Readers are given just enough interiority and a direct line into the characters’ consciousnesses that is especially helpful in understanding the two main female characters, Lala and Mrs. Whalen. Their stories are full of emotion and vulnerability, such that it becomes imperative for readers to know exactly what they are thinking, and why. Readers learn that Mrs. Whalen’s story addresses the question of how someone moves forward when a loved one is taken too soon. Readers will also find that her story centers around the ideas of grief and post-traumatic stress. Meanwhile, Lala’s character focuses on finding her voice, and understanding the true meaning of self-worth.
The novel is told primarily through third-person narration. What is truly admirable is Jones’s ability to draw the reader in through the second-person point-of-view, which is used twice throughout the novel for Lala’s character. Lala’s broken family and troubling past call for the reader to empathize and understand the emotional toil that overwhelms her. By using the second-person point of view, the reader then slips into Lala’s shoes, allowing her reality to temporarily become the reality of the reader. Throughout the novel, Lala’s character is quite fragile. When the point of view flips to the second-person, it is because Lala is contemplating her life and trying to understand why God could possibly be punishing her. Although Jones employs the use of the second-person point of view sporadically throughout the novel, its use is effective at driving the emotional narrative arc.
The prose presented in this novel is raw and authentic. Lala has a story that readers will find similar to the stories of other women who have suffered at the hands of domestic violence. The voice, with which Lala’s story is told, is tender and caters to the difficult subject matter at hand. Throughout the novel Lala’s voice is resilient, calm, quiet, and at times apologetic. Her story calls for understanding and compassion, and it demands that people simply listen. Throughout the novel, Lala’s character seeks to find courage and independence as she struggles to decide how much she would be willing to take from an abusive husband. The novel grapples with the unanswerable question: how do you learn to love a man?
Adan and Lala frequently find themselves fighting over money. After their altercation regarding the misplacement of a large sum of money, readers find Lala badly beaten and at her wit’s end. It is in this moment that readers learn how she copes with the fallout: she finds order in her home while bargaining with God. “If He would only make this the marriage of her dreams, she had offered, if He would only grant them a happy life full of children and laughter around the table at dinner time and matching outfits at the races or the fairs… she would forgive him for subjecting her to growing up with Carson and Wilma, she would go to church, she would forget about Tone, she would not hold these beatings against Adan ” (133).
This novel of interconnected storylines is poignant in its depiction of multiple characters as they process extenuating circumstances. The two main male characters, Adan Primus and Tone, are prime examples of this. Throughout their story arcs, readers will find truth in what it is like growing up in a family that struggles to make ends meet. Readers will also find that Adan is subjected to disproportionately harsher realities, owing to his lack of supportive parental figures and having the odds stacked against him due to race and class. Adan’s character stands for the belief that individuals are defined by their past. The novel uses flashbacks to assist readers in truly understanding the characters’ motives. When a character is faced with a dilemma, the novel seamlessly redirects to an exploration of the character’s childhood.
Following Adan and Lala’s altercation regarding the misplacement of money, the novel immediately dives into Adan’s character. “To tell the story of Adan Primus you’d have to tell the story of a Burger Bee snack-box on a Friday afternoon. Adan is ten at the time of this story, and he is already growing into someone a friend should be afraid of just the same as a stranger. . . It is however not just the fact of Adan’s impressive physical build that is worthy of caution, it is the sinister undertone to his actions that would worry anyone who takes the time to watch” (108). Implementing a flashback immediately after Adan and Lala’s fight allows anger and shock to resonate with the reader. These flashbacks reveal that the novel’s characters have demons that they have suppressed and buried deep within their subconscious minds. These are the same demons that will come back to haunt them.
How the One-Armed Woman Sweeps Her House is a novel that truly speaks for itself. The pages are filled with suspense and drama that will leave readers on the edge of their seats. It will tug at the readers’ hearts as they follow the lives and choices of four individuals who attempt to undo damage that appears too far gone. This novel is an ambitious and poetic debut providing readers with an unforgettable narrative.