Dew Angels is one of the best young adult novels I have read in a long time. It’s not just Melanie Schwapp’s strong, lucid writing; believable, engaging characters; compelling plotlines; and snappy pace, but also how the reader sees the world through fourteen-year-old Nola’s eyes. My ‘inner teenager’ certainly identified with underlying aspects of the story: the need to be loved and to belong; the agonies of first love and heartbreak; the power of anger; to feel comfortable in my skin and at one with the roots of my identity; and, most of all, the need for self acceptance. These are concerns that never completely go away even when one is a so-called ‘adult’ who has – supposedly! – learned how to handle things.
At birth, Nola Chambers is ostracized by her family for having skin “black as a moonless night”, while her siblings have skin “as golden as the retreating sun”. She is obliged by the headmistress of her school to do homework with Dahlia whose mother runs Merlene’s Bar and Grill, known locally for being a den of evil. “There was music coming from the bar. The deep reggae bass seemed to spur on her racing heart as she walked past the red door. A woman in a tight orange mini skirt and tubed top leaned against the jamb, blowing streams of smoke from her nose as she drew on a cigarette.” The gambit works and Nola discovers the meaning of committment, friendship and fun. She also learns that gossip is malicious and fuels prejudice founded on ignorance, fear and envy.
“In Dahlia’s home, hugs were safe, happy. But in the Chambers’ house, hugs, like everything else, brought pain.” Nola is regularly berated and beaten by her father: “He hit her with the buckle. He was never really fussy about where the blows landed. Nola always had to turn away to protect her face, and cross her arms across her chest to protect her breasts.” Her mother works her fingers to the bone, all her beauty and joy gone, making jams and chutneys to sell. She cowers in front of her husband and does nothing to protect her daughter. When Merlene remarks, “I wish our men would stop beatin’ up the women”, Nola begins to realise she does not have to sit there and take it.
Nola carries her beloved Grampy and his stories with her through the dark times, her favourite being the one about the Dew Angels. “Grampy told her that at dawn, while the world slept, the angels came down from heaven, perched the sun on the horizon, and washed the earth beneath the pale blue light.”
After a near-death experience, Nola ends up living in downtown Kingston. “Run and never stop till they were far from every human being who would ever make that child feel ashamed of who she was; of how she looked.” The neighbourhood is ramshackle, but safe and friendly, until a slick gangster weaves his Mafiosi magician’s web and trickery around it. He benefits from a changing economic climate: “Rising food costs and living expenses were viewed as sabotage from the government to keep the ‘Black man down’, and the anger and resentment for the upper crust of society diffused into the streets like a poisonous gas.” Nola begins to smoke weed, play truant, and develops a ‘fuck you’ attitude.
The adults around Nola leave her to figure it out – no lecturing or punishment. She begins to listen, and wakes up to reality, as the criminals move in, corruption and Tarantino-style thuggery in their wake: “The faces were like giant mirrors, positioned on Palm View, but reflecting the cruelty and harshness of life in areas miles and miles away, areas that were growing concentrically nearer to Palm View. Many wore scars slashed into their faces and chests, and those who had none on their outer body carried them on the inside.”
After a nail-biting kidnapping rescue, a certain order returns and Nola find her place in life, founding a school for kids with special needs. And she finds her man who calls her his “Princess” and treats her like one. “I had been surrounded by love, all my life, but I could not see it in the midst of the hate within me.”
Through all her struggles she remembers her Grampy’s words, “The mind had the power to change any situation from bad to good”. She realises that, “Until that morning with the dew angels, I had always thought of that black vessel of my body, the thing that transported my soul, as my enemy. It was the thing that had caused me too much pain to claim ownership of it. So, like a child caught marking on a wall, then shaking its head in denial that it was the one responsible, I stood aside from my body and shook my head in denial of it. Until that morning, my spirit walked beside my body like a prisoner handcuffed to its enemy.”
As well as the feelgood factor at the end, you get a vibrant feel for Jamaican town vs. country life, food, jokes, slang, and pop-culture references are sprinkled here and there, (I could have done with a few more, Jamaica being the musical powerhouse that it is). No surprises that Jimmy Cliff’s “The Harder They Come” makes an appearance as does Pluto Shervington’s “I Man Born Yah”. To which I would add Bob and Marcia’s anthem “Young Gifted and Black” and Junior Murvin’s “Police and Thieves”.
Nola’s story represents the monstrous sources of historical injustice around race and colour which have left behind them such great physical, psychological and spiritual scars. Ultimately Dew Angels is a celebration of finding the strength to overcome myriad struggles and cruelty; to find harmony and happiness. It is a vibrant addition to the great pantheon of literature dealing with race and colour. Marlon James’ Booker win has certainly put Jamaica’s literary richness back into the limelight, but he is not the only one out there telling a damn good story.
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Dew Angels by Melanie Schwapp | May 2016 £8.99 384pp PB | ISBN: 978-1-908446-47-3 | e-book: 978-1-908446-20-6 | Winner, Words on Wings Award for the best young adult novel
HopeRoad Publishing is the brainchild of former film and TV executive, Rosemarie Hudson, who launched BlackAmber Books in 1997 to provide African, Caribbean and Asian writers with a wider platform and prove they could be commercially successful. Early successes included Alex Wheatle’s Brixton Rock, Qaisra Shahraz’s The Holy Woman and Yvonne Brewster’s The Undertaker’s Daughter.
HopeRoad vigorously supports voices too often neglected by the mainstream and promotes literature with a special focus on writings and writers from Africa, the Caribbean and Asia.