Thomas Hoover’s Caribbee is a historical fiction novel set mainly in 1640’s Barbados. It presents an in-depth look at the island’s society, the introduction of sugar industry and the move away from indentured servants to slavery. There are many characters from different layers of society, including two strong female characters and the aim is clearly to show the reader what life in the Caribbean was like in the early 17th century.
Unfortunately, the novel’s biggest failing is the very ambition to show too much. The main plot is simple: The King of England has been deposed and it is feared that Cromwell will try to force rule over the Caribbean settlements. The local Royalists would like to keep the island loyal to the deposed King, while other factions would serve any master just as long as they are still allowed to become rich from the newly discovered sugar production. At the same time, there are two slaves who both have their own storylines and a buccaneer who somehow falls in love with a local headstrong lady.
The first three quarters of the novel consist of long descriptions of committee meetings, discussions, worries of Cromwell’s intentions, the buccaneer’s love story and his dreams of taking over Jamaica, the slaves’ memories of their childhoods, their lives as slaves and dreams of being free again. Nothing much happens during this portion of the story and the chapters and discussions run longer than they need to. Even the potentially exciting action sequences are skipped over. These chapters also include long descriptions of flintlock and matchlock mechanisms (while ignoring the other types of firing mechanisms completely, such as the wheellock and the snaphaunce), sugar production etc. that sound too much like exposition and halt the progress of the story.
The last quarter of the book is a lot stronger and the story actually goes forward. This time, the weakness is mainly that the main story is so loose that the characters jump from one part of the Caribbean to the next and face minor difficulties until the novel finally ends. There’s no real dramatic arch, no real conclusion. The slave characters’ lose their purpose completely and more or less hang around for the last few chapters, making you wonder why the author spent so much time with them in the first three quarters of the novel.
Overall, Caribbee is a problematic novel to review. On the one hand, it depicts the 17th century life in Barbados in a wonderfully detailed way. But, on the other hand, it lacks in plot and engaging characters, ending up with several meandering chapters. Serious editorial tightening of the book would have been in order to get rid of the excess fat in the first three quarters and make sure that the story keeps moving forward. I waded through it because I love the era and am fascinated by the early Caribbean history, but I still found myself _working_ on it on several occasions. It is a shame, because there really is a nice little novel hidden within the pages.