Book Review: John Crow’s Devil

by Yulande Lindsay

Excerpt from John Crow’s Devil

The Prologue: The End

No living thing flew over the village of Gibbeah, neither fowl, nor dove, nor crow. Yet few looked above, terrified should an omen come in a shriek or flutter. Nothing flew but dust. It slipped through window blades, door cracks, and the lifting clay of rooftops. Dust coated house and ground, shed and tree, machine and vehicle with a blanket of gray. Dust hid blood, but not remembrance.

Apostle York took three days to decide. He had locked himself in the office as his man waited by the door. Clarence touched his face often without thought, running his fingers over scratches hardened by clotted blood. The Apostle’s man was still in church clothes: his one black suit and gray shirt with tan buttons that matched his skin, save for his lips, which would have been pink had they not been beaten purple three days ago. Clarence shifted from one leg to the other and squeezed his knuckles to prevent trembling, but it was no use.

“Clarence,” the Apostle called from behind the door. “Pile them up. Pile them all up. Right here the roads meet. Pile them up and burn them.”

Men, women, and children, all dead, were left in the road. Those who scurried home with their lives imprisoned themselves behind doors. There were five bodies on Brillo Road; the sixth lay with a broken neck in a ditch where the bridge used to be. Clarence limped, cursing the hop and drag of his feet. At the crossroads he stopped.

“All man who can hear me!” he shouted. “Time now to do the Lord’s work.  The Apostle callin you.”

Faces gathered at windows but doors remained shut. Some would look at Clarence, but most studied the sky. Clarence looked above once and squeezed his knuckles again. A dove had flown straight into his face, splitting his bottom lip and almost scratching out his left eye. He felt as if more would come at that very moment, but the Apostle had given him strength.

“I talkin to every man who can stand. Heed the word or you goin get lick with friggery worse than any bird.”

Birds. They came back in a rush; in screams and screeches and wounds cut fresh by claws. “You know what my Apostle can do.”

Clarence knew the houses where men hid. He hopped and dragged to each one and hammered into the door.

“Sunset,” he said.

Three days before, when noon was most white, the village had killed Hector Bligh. Reckoning came swift, before they were even done. God’s white fury swept down on them with beaks and claws and the beat of a thousand wings.

But there were things the villagers feared more than birds. One by one they came out and the men threw the bodies on the bonfire.

This is a debut novel. A…DEBUT…novel. It is written with the assurance of someone who has been publishing for decades. It is written by someone who knows his people, knows his religion and who knows himself. John Crow’s Devil seethes with hate, fear, guilt and rage. Ostensibly about a spiritual battle between two men of God, better yet, between Good and evil, it is so much more. It examines the inner fears and desires of the people of Gibbeah, the small Jamaican town where the book is set. It lays open the need to follow the strongest among us, it exposes the petty craving for power or at least proximity to it. It is brutal, beautiful, chilling and redemptive. John Crow’s Devil goes on that list. You know, that list every avid reader has of their top ten books. It sits there…triumphant.

On the surface, the story centres on the spiritual battle of the soul of Gibbeah waged between the Rum Preacher, the disgraced leader of the church, endured contemptuously by his congregations and the newcomer the powerful fearless Apostle York who dismisses the former by means both spiritual and physical. Craving a strong leader, the members of the congregation led by eager Lucinda, a woman whose own inner darkness threatens to overpower her, quickly support and carry out the new leaders’ directives to isolate and reject any and all persons and activities that reject his teachings. There are signs and symbols, two headed calves are born and people are accused of evil acts and the use of obeah and punished in the most savage manner imaginable. Villagers are forbidden to drink, gamble or even fornicate with their lawfully wedded. The Apostle declares that it is only his word that need be followed and the name ‘Jesus’ is forbidden. Slowly, the village is cut off from the outside world as the Apostle orders the destruction of all communications – trucks bringing stone to fix the road and bridge are stoned until they are forced to flee, rediffusion sets are ordered destroyed.

I’m not going into a detailed analysis of the themes of this book because frankly that would take days and many, many pages.  However I do want to talk about a few things. First there is, in my opinion more than one battle going on. There are two secondary characters each representing one side of the battle: Lucinda and Widow Greenfield. I think it is significant, how James’ names these two women. The first, Lucinda, in the use of the first name is there a hint of contempt there? Lucinda is deeply flawed woman, who in recognition yet denial of these flaws seeks to whip them (literally) from her body and her soul. She is joyful when the Rum Preacher is tossed from the church and pledges herself fully to the Apostle. She refuses to acknowledge her sexual attraction to him declaring to herself that is a Sin. There are in fact, two Lucindas: Night Lucinda who obsesses about her sexual attraction to the Apostle and continues her forays into practices of obeah which she learned from her mother and Day Lucinda, ruthless in her righteousness and unwavering in her loyalties. The two sides are constantly at war.

The other woman is Widow Greenfield [Mary], who takes the disgraced Rum Preacher into her home. She is an angry woman bitter both about her marriage and the death of her husband. Even as she lends support to the preacher during his recovery and search for redemption, she rejects God and yet it is she in the end that is the key to the salvation of the village. Mary and Lucinda are old enemies, the latter a source of scorn for Greenfield and her gang as children and as rivals for the same man as adults. They are on opposite sides of this titanic struggle and their loyalties are a reflection of who they are. Lucinda follows the Apostle blindly unquestioning of his doctrine even when it strays into heretical territory: he questions the nature of the relationship between David and Jonathan and forbids the name of the Lord in the church declaring that to call the name of Jesus is a show of disrespect as it is his first name and if He is the Father who are they to call him by his name? She craves the power she feels the Apostle carries but she craves it not for her own salvation but for the same reasons she still practices the rituals of obeah: it is a weapon to be wielded against her enemies; it is an instrument of control. Mary, on the other hand, questions and curses and rejects anything that is of the Church. Yet it is her rough kindness that allows the Rum Preacher his redemption. It is through her that he is able to gain the strength to battle the Apostle.

The imagery and symbolism in John Crows’ Devil are powerful. Heralded by a flock of John Crows (vultures to non-Jamaicans) the true nature of Apostle York is immediately called into question. Is his ‘righteousness’ true? The people of Gibbeah may blindly follow but readers are more sceptical. The appearance of two-headed and otherwise deformed cattle presents a grotesque image and is used a tool to bring those who harbour doubts or choose not to follow in line. They are declared symbols of the Evil One, signs that dark arts are being practiced. In my opinion however, the most striking image is the appearance of the doves. In popular as well as religious lore, the dove is a symbol of peace. In John Crow’s Devil the dove is used both as a weapon and an instrument of hope. When they doves appear, they attack the people of the village, with the exception of the Rum Preacher and the Widow Greenfield. As the book ends they seem to obey the commands of the Widow.

There is so much to take in; it is a slim volume that reads like a much larger one.

Highly, highly recommended.

(Source: Reading Jamaica)

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