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by Olive Senior
Reviewed by Charlotte Simpson

Duality lies at the heart of the short stories contained in this recently republished collection by Canadian-Jamaican author, Olive Senior. Old ways are pitted against the new; traditional religion against the white people's God; the merits of pale complexions over black skin; the backwardness of a rural island versus a prosperous middle-class life. Through these conflicts Senior explores the tensions in colonial and post-colonial worlds.

Several of the stories are written from a child's point of view, the better, perhaps, to enable the reader to understand the changing nature of life in the Caribbean and expose the inequality that these dualisms entail. The story where these tensions are most obvious is 'The Two Grandmothers' in which a young girl is torn between the casual rural life of her Grandma Del and the glamorous life of Grandma Elaine who has wealthy boyfriends and fabulous dresses. As the girl grows older she moves away from the playful life with Grandma Del to the grown-up world of Grandma Elaine, asking her mother if she can have her hair relaxed and get a training bra. However she is soon made to realise that life is much more complicated and she starts to ask questions like 'Mummy, am I really a nigger?' and 'How can I be beautiful if my skin is so dark?'

There are other heartbreaking scenes like this in the stories. Another that has stayed with me since I read the collection occurs in 'Tears of the Sea'. A sad and lonely girl finds a beautiful seashell in the sand. The shell starts to talk to her and they become friends, but sometimes the voice is mean and tells the girl things that are frightening. The shell says: 'My mother is the sea, my father is the sky. Where are your mother and father?' There's something desperately sad about a child whose imaginary friend turns on her.

Many of the characters we meet are lonely. The old man in 'The View from the Terrace' has nothing else to do in his life except watch the family who live across the valley from him, immersed in their lives but also entirely isolated from them. The snake-woman in the title story is an Indian woman initially shunned by the village she is taken to live in. Nolene, the wealthy woman in 'The Tenantry of Birds', is an anachronism in a changing Jamaica, an age apart from the new, adventurous woman that her husband takes up with.

I realise that I've portrayed these as pretty depressing stories—they aren't, so please don't let you put that off reading this book! The snake-woman and Nolene both reclaim their power and their lives; the young girl with two grandmothers forgets the insults and runs headlong into a teenage life of make-up and Dallas. The nature of short stories means that often we don't know what happens next to the characters that capture our imagination so we are free to imagine a better, happier life for them.

Successful short stories are difficult to pull off—they are a delicate art form that requires skill and care. Olive Senior has certainly achieved this in Arrival of the Snake-Woman.