Barbara Lalla, Cascade, Kingston, Jamaica, University of the West Indies Press, 2010, pp.299. ISBN 978- 976-640-233-4
A review by Frank Birbalsingh
Cascade is the second novel of Barbara Lalla who, since 1976, left her native Jamaica for Trinidad where she is Professor Emerita of Language and Literature in the Department of Liberal Arts, at the University of the West Indies, Trinidad and Tobago. Like her first novel Arch of Fire, (1998) Cascade studies Jamaican family and social relations, but with special emphasis on perils of ageing in conditions of crime, violence and insecurity in post-colonial Jamaica. While the main action of Cascade unfolds in Jamaica, characters who engage with others in Trinidad and even Canada give the impression that issues of ageing are common worldwide nowadays.
In Cascade three main characters - Rosemarie (Rummy) and a married couple Ellie and Dan, all Jamaican seniors - shun life in their crime-infested capital city of Kingston for a guest house which is owned by their friend Ivy and being converted into a home for the elderly in the hills of rural Jamaica. Although Ellie and Dan move to Trinidad to be with their daughter Rachel and her Trinidadian family, contact is maintained throughout with the Jamaican guest house in Cascade through accounts from multiple narrators including not only Ellie, Rosemarie, Dan and Ivy, but also from a host of relatives, servants, care givers and other associates.
As we might expect, voices of different narrators create multi-faceted versions of events and characters, although so many voices in the novel - twelve - sometimes test our alertness as readers, especially in the case of narrators who are minor characters with concerns of their own. Still, we do not lose track of the main story of "elder rights" of protagonists being threatened, partly by dementia that is part of the normal process of ageing, and partly by the machinations of family members or care givers who take advantage of their physical decline and mental frailty. Not that elder abuse is new, but the author's exposé of it is timely because of the recent spectacular increase in the life-span of populations in most countries, leading to the emergence of a universal care-giving industry that is today more institutionalised and therefore more open to organised abuse of elders.
In Cascade the plan for Ivy's guest house as a refuge for the elderly relies on care-giving services from Rosemarie who has nursing and administrative experience in a hospital in the US; but the plan is transformed into a more commercialised one of a sleek resort with luxurious accommodation for tourists at ground level while, according to Sibyl, resident seniors are confined in prison-like conditions upstairs: "Don't talk bout iron bar, Missis... is crime they say. Stupidness. Whoever hear bout crime inna country? Besides, they not trying to protect us, is jail they jailing us." To complicate matters the person who engineers this transformation of Cascade from guest house to tourist resort is Scotty Cunningham, Rosemarie's stepson who, along with his wife Pansy, gradually take over control from Rosemarie.
Although Ivy, Rosemarie, Ellie and Dan are brought up during the period of British colonialism in the Caribbean when human rights were restricted, they paradoxically display more humane and caring attitudes than Scotty and his associate Ashmead who belong to a younger, more selfish and calculating generation of "free" post-independence Jamaicans. As Rosemarie says of her stepson: "Scotty is like a animal with the whip cracking over his head...Scotty mad fe money, and is that send him to Ashmead in the first place."
Professor Lalla seems to make a clear, if ironic, distinction between the moral climate in colonial Jamaica, despite limits on political freedom during that period, and the grasping greed that seems to follow after independence. Yet, for all its post-colonial coarseness and commercialism, Professor Lalla who is either author or co-author of several academic studies of Jamaican creole, contrives a fictional portrait of Jamaica in Cascade that is at least partially redeemed by her magnificent command of Jamaican creole speech and dialogue. For Jamaican speech allows the author to deploy oral strategies that eloquently express the deepest thoughts and most profound feelings of her characters, and elicit the essential humanity of their resilience in coping with historical change.
Apart from the vocabulary, rhythms and cadences of its Jamaican speech, the dialogue in Cascade reflects a range of oral strategies, for example, the jokes of Basil whose motive seems to be nothing more than his irrepressible urge to provide comic relief. In one instance, water running down the hillside instinctively prompts him to ask: "Miss Petrona, what lie down inna bed an him bed always wet?" and then supplies the answer: "Ribba." Basil's pun on the word "bed" is not related to any activity or conversation he has with Petrona: it simply records his position as an underling (like Sibyl in a previous quotation) within the hierarchy of Jamaican class structure, and their shared acceptance of their fate. Basil addresses another joke to Ellie: "What make cow walk over hill, ma'am?" and again provides the answer: "cause him cyan't walk under it." While such jokes do not advance the action of the novel, they may heighten or relieve tension and help to produce a more rounded and complete portrait of Jamaica.
One of the most effective oral strategies in Cascade is the author's use of aphorisms or apophthegms drawn from resources of traditional Jamaican folk wisdom, for example, the delicious paradox of: "There are two tragedies in life, they say. One is not to get your heart's desire; the other is to get it," or the blatant sexism of: "Mankind nat to be hold in subjection to womanhood." The wonder is that such reflections can emerge from people who live daily under threat of violence from either police and gangs: "Bullet a rain – blam blam! Me' queeze under the divan. Yes, sah. Gunshat. 'Queeze me have fe 'queeze. Blam blam round me I smell de gunpowder inna de room."