My seventh NetGalley read out of the ten I had lined up – and I have to admit that two of them didn’t really work for me, all tell and no show, and I didn’t finish them, have given feedback to NetGalley and won’t be reviewing them here. So now I only have “Femina” left to read. This one wasn’t quite what I expected, but when I looked again at the blurb, I saw I concentrated more on the “At eighteen years old, Dinah gave away her baby son to the rich couple she worked for before they left Jamaica. They never returned. She never forgot him. Eighteen years later, a young man comes from the US to Kingston. From the moment she sees him, Dinah never doubts – this is her son. What happens next will make everyone question what they know and where they belong. A powerful story of belonging, identity and inheritance, What a Mother’s Love Don’t Teach You brings together a blazing chorus of voices” bit and less at the “to evoke Jamaica’s ghetto, dance halls, criminal underworld and corrupt politics, at the beating heart of which is a mother’s unshakeable love for her son.” bit!

Sharma Taylor – “What a Mother’s Love Don’t Teach You”

(21 June 2022, NetGalley)

Regina couldn’t figure out why Apollo didn’t understand that ‘OK’ and ‘alright’ was as much excitement as ghetto people like her could muster. She didn’t know how to explain that they didn’t deal in exaggeration, not because they didn’t appreciate good things but because life had proved you shouldn’t express too much excitement, in case the goodness got taken away. Saying words like ‘awesome’ was only looking for trouble.

Told in short chapters from different characters’ point of view, varying for some characters between direct first-person speech in patois (not hard to understand once you get into it) and third-person reporting, this fast-paced and unputdownable novel gives us a blistering view into 1980s Jamaican socio-politics. Areas are controlled by “Dons” who work on behalf of a political party to make sure the people of the area vote for that party; by care and paying medical bills; by intimidation; by coercion; by rape and murder. So the interesting story of Dinah and is-he-her-son? Apollo plays out to this background, the other people in the yard in which Dinah and her mother live just as implicated in that background as the big men who control things.

Apollo is a rich and privileged boy with a Black mother and White stepfather, doing an internship at a law firm while the family stays in Jamaica, tracking down Dinah in Lazarus Gardens after she claims him as her son and is sacked as a result, then near-fatally drawn by her young neighbours, budding musician Damian and the attractive Regina, who he sees as honest and authentic where, because of their own circumstances, they are very much not so. They are all drawn beautifully; we also get the police chief, the MP of the area and a random resident of the high-end community Apollo’s family is living in. People know their history and have their pride:

[Dinah] tried to tell him history was important or people would vanish. Just like the bammy she cooked for him, a cassava cake that was one of the only things left behind of the Taino people, the original Jamaicans.

although as she tries to educate him, Apollo’s no good with a drum beat or a dance and is nonplussed by the cow horn she gives him that belonged to her great-grandmother: “This used to be yuh ancestor dem tongue! Dem use it to carry new of rebellion.” Apollo is clumsy and book-educated but not street-smart, telling Dinah not to eat her “slave diet” (that is all she can afford) and telling her about activists when her life there is about the struggle to survive at all.

There’s violence in the book – quite a lot of it – although in all but one passage where British, the psychopath Don of the area mulls on exactly how he will kill Apollo it is not gratuitous (and that pushes the plot forward and shows his character). The blurb DOES warn of this but it’s easy to pass over in favour of what looks like the main plot. It’s such a well-done book, though, I found, that I accepted the violence as part of the story: compulsive reading and with memorable characters. Even if someone behaves poorly, you can completely see why they are compelled to do that. The author is not afraid to put them through the wringer, and while lessons are learned and people grow, there is a sort of hard black humour to the traps the characters still find themselves in, little redemption available and the ending left open in many ways. This is a debut novel and, as other reviewers have said, formidable. I will definitely read what Taylor does next.

Thank you to Virago (hooray!) for selecting me to read this book in return for an honest review. “What a Mother’s Love Don’t Teach You” was published on 7 July 2022.