Alexandre grew up in the slums of a country that’s Haiti in all but name--the poorest country in the western hemisphere. He responds by refusing to acknowledge any connection with the type of people he grew up with, instead identifying with rich white tourists. He devotes his life to his work, first as a senator’s servant, and later as the manager of a lavish estate turned into an exclusive resort, until the increasing violence and instability forces him to change.
The Boiling Season is primarily a character study, written in the first person from Alexandre’s point of view. The characterization is both strong and insightful. Not only is Alexandre a vividly drawn, complex character, but the same is also true of several supporting characters. It’s not often that you encounter a book that deals in such a thoughtful way with people’s responses to the poverty and lack of opportunity they face in the world’s poorest countries. And Alexandre is a fascinating narrator--he’s not unreliable, in the sense that he doesn’t attempt to mislead the reader, but his perceptions of himself, the people around him and his place in the world are so frequently off-base that readers are invited to sort out his biases and come to their own conclusions. The author’s willingness to take the characters down unusual paths is also much-appreciated--for instance, rather than having an obligatory cookie-cutter romance, Alexandre is asexual, which further complicates his existing relationships.
The novel is also well-written, and I was especially relieved to find an author who not only has a mature writing style, but doesn’t equate “good writing” with “an avalanche of similes”--figurative language is used only where it actually helps illuminate the story. The pacing is leisurely, but unlike some other reviewers, I never found the book dull. While there’s a lot about estate management, it’s mostly about dealing with people--whether Alexandre’s bribing government officials or trying to bully the staff--and was written in an engaging enough way that I was able to invest in it. (But although there are a couple of shootouts, this isn’t a book for those looking for action.)
Oddly, although the book weaves in some of the history of the island and provides great visual and sensory detail, there isn’t much culture here. Neither the slumdwellers nor the rich islanders seem to have any recognizable cultural practices at all beyond a couple mentions of religion, and where you might expect a few Creole words or expressions to be sprinkled into the dialogue to add flavor, there’s nothing like that here. In fact, but for the characters’ names and forms of address (Monsieur, Madame), you’d think everyone spoke standard American English. For Alexandre’s narration, that seems plausible--he’s just the sort of stiff, formal type who might eschew colloquialisms--but the other characters all talk that way too.
Even so, this was a solid 4-star book for me up until the end. Unfortunately, the climax felt forced, making it more of a 3.5. But I’m rounding up because I did enjoy reading it, and because of its thoughtful treatment of its themes.