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Merle

Merle

Beka Lamb

Beka Lamb - Zee Edgell There seems to be a trend in post-colonial literature of juxtaposing a character’s coming-of-age with that of his or her country. This is one of those books: it’s set in mid-20th-century Belize, nearing its independence from the British empire, as seen through the eyes of 14-year-old Beka. Beka has just flunked her freshman year at the local convent school, and since free public education is not yet an option, it's not certain whether her father will let her try again. Meanwhile her best friend, Toycie, gets into some serious trouble.

Unfortunately, Edgell deploys a combination of techniques that, while not always bad, combine to make this a less than engaging read. First, the entire story is told in flashback, so we know up front how all major threads are going to turn out. Second, the book is packed with Belize-related information – food, geography, flora and fauna, architecture, celebrations, politics, local history and legends, etc. – so that the setting threatens to take up more space than the plot. Third, the writing style is rather flat (and my edition needed a bit more copyediting), so that whenever the author moves from one topic to another, any momentum the story has gained is promptly lost. The book has only 171 pages, but feels longer; for more than half its length I had to push myself to read 30-40 pages a day. It does become somewhat more engaging toward the end, however.

That isn’t to say there isn’t some interesting material here, both in the girls’ coming-of-age and in the local politics. Beka’s grandmother is an active supporter of the independence party, but she tries to discourage Beka from striving for a school prize, apparently under the impression that a creole wouldn’t be allowed to win anyway. Meanwhile Beka’s father is less than thrilled with the idea of universal adult suffrage, despite being from a community disadvantaged by restricting the franchise, because he feels this diminishes his achievement as a black man who pulled himself up by his bootstraps. However, Beka’s relatives’ opinions are more memorable than their personalities; the characters aren’t flat, exactly, but nor are they particularly vivid.

Overall, this isn’t a terrible book and I wouldn’t discourage people from reading it, especially those who have some personal connection to Belize, but it was a bit of a chore for me and seems better suited to academic reading than pleasure. So, 2.5 stars.