Review by Eric Darton
Kelvin C. James’ latest novel People and Peppers: A Romance is a delightful tale for a wide general readership. My enthusiasm is based on two factors. First, the book presents an engaging “problem”: the love affair between an attractive young, unmarried pair, who, it turns out, will soon be parents. This could become, in the hands of a lesser writer, a very turgid business. But Kelvin Christopher James has the knack for telling his story with the quality that Italo Calvino, in his Six Memos for the Millennium, suggests as a primary virtue, i.e. lightness.
It is this lightness that leads the reader into an evermore intimate engagement with the characters and the playing out of their lives. It also permits Kelvin Christopher James to deal with quite serious material of a personal and social nature – what James Baldwin calls “the price of the ticket” – in a way that acknowledges the vicissitudes of history, including colonialism, without derailing the essentially joyful forward momentum of his tale.
Second, People and Peppers serves as a transparent, and therefore very effective, introduction to contemporary life in Trindidad and Tobago. James conveys a great deal of cultural – and culinary – information by weaving it seamlessly into the “romance.”
“I finished this volume with a lot more knowledge about this two-island nation, its people and customs, than when I began, without feeling I’d worked hard to gain it.
A third factor, one that arises from the timing of the book’s publication, gives it a measure of added value, particularly in light of the issues raised into public discussion by the recent police shootings of black men in Ferguson, Missouri, New York City and elsewhere. Trinidad and Tobago, while hardly free from social conflict, have an entirely different perception of “race” than we are used to in the U.S. It is instructive to find oneself, via James’ culturally-informed writing, living, albeit fictionally, in a society where race, that very real and deadly absurdity, is not the dispositive factor in people’s ways of seeing or dealing with one another. The genetic and cultural “callalloo” of T&T makes reduction to “black” or “white” impossible, so James’ characters, while hardly blind to skin color, hair texture or any other distinguishing feature, must, in the end, come to terms with one another based on – to paraphrase Dr. King’s words – the content of their characters.