It’s become a bit of a critic’s shorthand to analogize a debut novel to beloved works from revered authors; it alerts potential readers by providing touchstones and feeds the literary version of the hype machine. Tiphanie Yanique’s Land Of Love And Drowning is no different. While the novel is a sweeping, historical family epic with touches of magical realism, immediately putting it in a similar vein to Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years Of Solitude or Toni Morrison’s Song Of Solomon or Isabel Allende’s The House Of The Spirits, such comparisons may also be doing a disservice. Yanique’s voice is her own.
The novel presents more than half a century on the history the U.S. Virgin Islands, opening in 1917 when ratification of a treaty made what had been the Danish West Indies for 250 years into the Virgin Islands of the United States. One of the many journeys presented in this book is how the inhabitants of this place went from being considered Danish to being American Negros. It’s a narrative that offers an unabashed history lesson, one of the main characters going so far as to emphatically profess the nobility inherent in being a historian. Yet it’s also a narrative where spells are cast, irrevocable destinies are taken as a given, and even the slightest coincidences become heavy with meaning.
Despite having several narrators telling many sides of the same story, this is essentially the tale of two sisters, Eeona and Anette—the bonds holding them together and the differences, the secrets, that threaten to fracture them irreparably and even eradicate the enduring legacy of their family. It’s a tale about how they awaken and adjust to their father’s harmful choices, how modernization and politics eventually find their way to what seemed to be an idyllic island existence. Yanique’s novel is a vivid, shimmering, lyrical portrait, a love letter to these islands and to the hypnotic, dangerous power of the sea.