A Tall History of Sugar by Curdella Forbes – Book Review

I don’t usually like doing reviews long after I’ve read the book because I tend to forget what I wanted to say…like what happened with this book lol. I should have written my notes but I got lazy and then I was waiting for my book club to discuss it and hear other perspectives and opinions. Also, it’s been awhile since I’ve written a blog book review so this may come across more as just my thoughts and musings, just go with it:)


A Tall History of Sugar tells the story of Moshe Fisher, a man who was “born without skin,” so that no one is able to tell what race he belongs to; and Arrienne Christie, his quixotic soul mate who makes it her duty in life to protect Moshe from the social and emotional consequences of his strange appearance.

The narrative begins with Moshe’s birth in the late 1950s, four years before Jamaica’s independence from colonial rule, and ends in the era of what Forbes calls “the fall of empire,” the era of Brexit and Donald Trump. The historical trajectory layers but never overwhelms the scintillating love story as the pair fight to establish their own view of loving, against the moral force of the colonial “plantation” and its legacies that continue to affect their lives and the lives of those around them.

Written in lyrical, luminous prose that spans the range of Jamaican Englishes, this remarkable story follows the couple’s mysterious love affair from childhood to adulthood, from the haunted environs of rural Jamaica to the city of Kingston, and then to England—another haunted locale in Forbes’s rendition.

Following on the footsteps of Marlon James’s debut novel, John Crow’s Devil, which Akashic Books published in 2005, we are delighted to introduce another lion of Jamaican literature with the publication of A Tall History of Sugar. – Goodreads

What a beautifully written story. I’ve never read anything by Curdella Forbes before but I want to now. Her way with words is *chef’s kiss*. Write my life please.

I love an authentic Jamaican story. It’s an amazing feeling when you feel at home in a book. You know where you are, you can picture everything vividly without taxing your imagination. It’s not even just about the scenery, but also the journey that she took us on through Jamaica’s history. This was Jamaica, the past through to the present. Slavery, colonialism, independence, Michael Manley’s political movement etc.

There were many other aspects of Jamaican life that were observed in this book. The author made us examine gender, poverty, life in rural Jamaica, sexuality, religion, story telling and mysticism. We got a glimpse into how people live and relate to one another, the kinship in these small, rural communities. We got to feel the presence of strong Jamaican women through Rachel (Moshe’s mother), Arrienne and Arrienne’s mother. I also really appreciated the depiction of men and fathers in this book, it was so refreshing. The love they have for their children, their presence in their children’s lives. This examination of Jamaican fatherhood without trauma and tragedy, I’d love to read more of that.

The author also kept bringing the story back to the title. The history of sugar and slavery was present throughout the book and she did it in a very interesting way. The characters themselves felt the physical effects of sugar. Moshe couldn’t eat it as it made him sick, Moshe’s father had a wound that would never heal, Arrienne and her father had a genetic birthmark that would always cause them immense physical pain when cane cutting season started. In contrast, when Arrienne began to become involved in Jamaican politics and was dedicated to helping Jamaica, the pain subsided. As a member of book club put it, “It was King Sugar afterall”.

Another interesting aspect of this book was the constant ambiguity. We never really know who the author is, was it Arrienne? Did it switch back and forth between characters, was it intentionally written this way? Moshe’s appearance, through the characters she tried to say what Moshe really looked like but we never actually know. Again, was this deliberate? So many questions!

What I loved the absolute most about this book was the exploration of the deep love and bond between Moshe and Arrienne right from the beginning to the end. I didn’t realize how invested I was in these two characters until the end when I felt tears running down my face. How the author wrote their childhood, how they protected one another, how in tune they were with each other even when they were apart, this almost psychic connection. Their love story was not just romantic, it transcended the physical. It was a moving connection between two soulmates or twin souls.

It would be remiss of me to not mention language and how it was used in this book. The patois in this book is one of the best ways I’ve ever seen it written. I didn’t hitch with the language at all, this was real patois that flowed as if it was being spoken out loud. What added to it was that patois wasn’t only used in the dialogue between the characters. The writer herself used it in her intervals and the narrator used it throughout. I can’t think of any other novels I’ve seen this with and I really liked it. It added to that feeling of authenticity. That being said though, it was the language and the intervals at the beginning of the book that made it hard to get into initially. In the beginning, the author kept explaining/translating the patois and I’m not gonna lie, It was annoying me. It made me question whether or not I was the target audience of this book which again, made me annoyed. I am a Jamaican reading a book based in Jamaica, written by a Jamaican author, why is this not feeling like this is for me? I wasn’t annoyed at the author though, I was annoyed with the fact that she felt she had to do that in the first place. I blame those people on Goodreads who write reviews like, “I couldn’t understand the language…why all the patois…what’s with this broken English…2 stars…DNF”. Honestly, sod y’all. I was happy that the intervals and translations didn’t last throughout the book. In fact, it seemed like she consciously stopped doing it. This was apparent when she wrote in one of the intervals,

There are too many spelling and grammatical errors in A Tall History of Sugar to make automatic corrections. Use the”Review Spelling and Grammar” tab to insert corrections manually. That is what the computer just write in the pop-up. Or words to that effect. Oh Lord, what is the one correct and singular language to carry this freight, this translation of griefs?”

This book was so layered, I still feel as if I haven’t grasped everything the author was trying to say. I feel as if this is one of those books that’s going to stay with me for awhile because there were just so many things to grasp and observe and I haven’t grasped them all. I would read this one again in the future for sure.

Let me know if you’ve read this and what you thought.

Stay safe 🙂

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