We’ve all driven down one of those streets, haven’t we? One of those streets where the lawns are manicured, the pavements are clean and uncracked, and the houses are hidden away behind large gates. One of those streets where you can feel money dripping from the trees.
Jacks Hill Road is that kind of road, and it’s the Jamaican setting for an entertaining novel by Jennifer Grahame. We’re introduced to it through the eyes of the housekeeper, Louise, as she struggles up the hill in the heat of the morning sun.
The beauty of the landscape always surprised her, coming from the dirt and rock stone of the downtown area.
Money, of course, can buy many things, but it can’t exempt people from things like loss, betrayal, illness, failing marriages and wayward children. So it’s no surprise that behind the perfect façade, things are going seriously wrong in the house on Jacks Hill Road. Dan is facing business ruin just as his wife Carmen is planning an extravagant party, and they must do everything they can to hold things together.
Add to that a host of very entertaining and sometimes outlandish characters, and you get a novel that is a few different things. First and foremost it’s a comedy, with some great scenes and some very funny dialogue that makes full use of Jamaica’s rich vernacular. But it’s also a clever social commentary, showing the dangers of materialism and the way a family can lose its way by focusing too much on the trappings and not enough on each other.
The main danger with the setup is that Dan and Carmen become either figures of fun or of hatred, the rich couple to be brought low for our amusement. This never occurs, because the story is told with compassion. The novel satirises Dan and Carmen’s lifestyle, but not Dan and Carmen themselves. Despite their flaws, they are characters to root for.
And although it’s Dan and Carmen’s struggle to avoid shame that dominates the novel, especially through the major set-piece scene of the party, there are plenty of other threads to the plot, involving various members of the household staff and their friends and family, with everything coming to a head at the party.
As an outsider to Jamaica, most of what I hear about the country is to do with its darker side—the violence, the drugs, the murder rate that’s one of the highest in the world. That side of the country is almost entirely absent from this book, and I found it refreshing to have my perspective altered and to see another side of the country represented. I’d recommend Jacks Hill Road as an entertaining read and a breezy introduction to some of the complexities of life in Jamaica, both for the residents of the large houses and those on the outside.