When 42-year-old, Trinidad-born Mona is forced to travel to Toronto to tend to her dying brother, she finds herself ensnared once again in a tangle of family history maintained by relatives intent on “dressing up the dirt.” Flooded not only with grief but confusion about her role as a woman in both her extended family and the larger Indo-Caribbean culture, she agrees to fulfill her brother’s dying request: to reclaim family land back in Trinidad. Mona’s journey home then becomes the catalyst for a flood of memories and sense-making, a process that is appended by the history of Gainder, a great-grandmother who travelled to Trinidad from India as an indentured worker in the 1800s.
The Swinging Bridge works best when it relaxes into a human story. There are some stiff, self-conscious moments here, especially in the opening, where the importance and difficulty of reconstructing the past and reconciling family is heavily underlined. Much more compelling are the passages where Mona recalls incidents from her childhood in San Fernando, a “fertile, exuberant, wounded city.” Revealing episodes with her cousins Sonia and Bess and confrontations with her authoritarian (often terrifying) father form the novel’s emotional core.
Although the pacing is sometimes off-putting, with family secrets revealed in a headlong rush in the third and final section, what finally emerges is a chronicle carved from the personal, historical, and polemical. Espinet accomplishes this not only through West Indian dialect and lyrical descriptive passages, but through her excellent evocation of the particular culture of childhood.
In the best sections, the writing itself swings and sing-songs with Trinidadian beats and percussive colloquialisms, taking on the infectious rhythms toward which Mona feels herself increasingly drawn. Indeed, when Espinet allows the organic momentum of her lush, lore-soaked prose to take over, message and medium merge, making this first novel one of both promise and passion.