HOW THE ONE-ARMED SISTER SWEEPS HER HOUSE by Cherie Jones
Little, Brown and Co, 2021
There’s a lot to admire in How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House. It’s a gritty, unapologetic excavation of the wealth divide in a small Caribbean tourist destination, cleverly juxtaposing idyllic tourism with the locals’ reality of violence and poverty. I appreciate what this book was trying to do. But my god, did I hate reading it.
I neglected to highlight any passages and don’t particularly feel like going back to it now, so apologies for the lack of evidence, but I hated the writing style; I tend to struggle with books written in dialect and this was no exception.
I also quickly grew weary of how relentlessly bleak it was. I don’t usually do this, but I made the mistake of reading my friend Marchpane’s review in the middle of writing this one and I cannot get over how succinctly she summarized my issues with this book, and anything I write in my own words about this would only be a pale imitation, so I am going to take the lazy route and just quote from her review (and I suggest you go read the whole thing):
“This book’s traumas are so relentless—incest; viscerally brutal beatings; an incident you might call infanticide via neglect. There is really no light with the shade here, not that you necessarily need light and shade to tell a sad story. The never letting up is precisely the point this novel is making. And I have no doubt this is (tragically) true-to-life for many women out there.
But in a work of fiction, this has the effect of flattening everything about the characters to this aspect of their experience. I was never less than 100% conscious that I was reading about invented people, sketches on a page who only exist in order to show me this violence. It was a barrier between me and the characters that only grew, brick by brick, as each awful, violent incident unfolded.“
To me, this is solidly the weakest offering on the Women’s Prize shortlist. It showcases an important cultural commentary, but lacks the literary craft to justify its accolades as a work of fiction. I think it’s a promising debut and hope that Jones will master the finesse needed to weave narrative and social commentary together in future works, but personally, I disliked this book’s style so strongly (a personal hangup, I’ll readily admit) that I’m not sure I’ll be following her career with much interest.
Trigger warnings for a lot of things, mostly sexual assault and child death.