Dominoes by Phobe McIntosh explores important issues of race and identity, while through its heart runs a classic tale of star-crossed lovers.
The premise of Dominoes, the debut novel by Phoebe McIntosh, is fascinating. What if you discover that the man you’re about to marry may be descended from people who owned your ancestors as slaves?
It’s a fascinating question to consider because it poses all kinds of other important questions about the way past injustices continue to shape the present, about race and reparations, identity, and so much more.
Dominoes explores the question through the relationship of Layla and Andy. Layla is a mixed-race woman and Andy is a white man, and they both share the same surname: McKinnon. In a normal world, this could be just a cute coincidence, but ours is not a normal world. It’s a world shaped by centuries of brutality, particularly in the Caribbean, where Layla’s family came from. So Layla is gradually forced to consider the possibility that Andy’s McKinnon ancestors were the slaveowners who treated her McKinnon ancestors as property.
The novel is based on a solo show that McIntosh performed at various theatrical venues—here’s an extract to give you an idea:
Layla’s character development through the book is very interesting. At the start, she is quite apolitical and unaware. She’s young and in love, and she doesn’t really pay much attention to what’s happening in the wider world. The person who really forces her to confront the past is her best friend Sera, and in doing so she also forces her to confront and understand her identity.
There’s a pivotal and poignant flashback scene that beautifully explains the dynamics of Layla and Sera’s friendship and their different experiences of race. The two of them are refused entry to a Soho bar, for no reason other than that they’re black. For Sera, this has happened many times before, and she just wants to get out of there and go somewhere where she’s not judged for her skin colour. But for the light-skinned, blond-haired Layla, it’s new territory. She refuses to believe that the bouncers are racist, then believes that their behaviour is some kind of anomaly that the managers of the bar will correct when she tells them about it. She uses some white friends as cover to get them into the bar, feeling triumphant about eluding the bouncers, but Sera is miserable and just wants to go home.
A similar dynamic comes out in other parts of Dominoes. Although Sera and Layla are true “besties” and are incredibly close on a personal level, their responses to issues of race and identity are very different, and this creates tension in their relationship. This is why Sera takes the extreme step of forcing Layla to confront the McKinnon family history, berating her and finally even refusing to attend the wedding. It’s an extreme reaction, and I think it’s the only part of the book that’s not quite believable—I can see why she’d press the issue, but refusing to attend your best friend’s wedding is a huge leap. But I can also see that it stems from a much deeper divide in their friendship. Maybe it’s the last straw for Sera.
Anyway, Sera’s role in the novel is important, both in exploring issues of racial identity and in forcing a reluctant Layla to go delving into the past. The search takes her to Jamaica, where she finds answers—not so much in the facts of the McKinnon family history as in a greater understanding of where she comes from and what’s important in her life.
The character of Andy is also well drawn. McIntosh does a great job of showing the love between Andy and Layla—their relationship is very believable and very sweet, without being cloying. Andy is caring and thoughtful, and he’s also a well-meaning “ally” who’s on a Diversity & Inclusion panel at his workplace. And yet his tweets also reveal areas of alarming ignorance on issues of race and police brutality.
And then there’s Andy’s family. When Andy’s mother loses her phone, she asks her husband to “check with the little coloured girl at the till”. There are other incidents like that, which are not blatant enough to negate their overall friendliness towards Layla but do contribute to her growing doubts about joining the family.
The novel is set in the last few years, so in the background all the time is the growing awareness of the Black Lives Matter movement. Again, Layla, Sera and Andy respond to it in very different ways, providing a fascinating perspective on this pivotal moment in recent history.
Dominoes is a novel that book groups will love because there are so many interesting questions to discuss and debate. It would also be a great gift for that person in your life who simply doesn’t understand why people keep talking about slavery and other historic injustices when they “all happened so long ago.”
Dominoes shows very clearly that the past does matter, and that historic injustices have a way of perpetuating themselves right up to the present day unless they are dealt with and properly rectified. It provides a great way of exploring and thinking about contemporary questions, while through its heart runs a classic tale of star-crossed lovers. It’s a thought-provoking and very enjoyable novel.