No Telephone to Heaven can be compared to a Tilt-A-Whirl carnival ride. The book, published more than three decades ago, immerses the reader into a whirlwind of color. It shuttles back and forward at such speed it leaves the reader questioning exactly what is going on and, just when you think you are getting the hang of it, the excitement stops, leaving the reader a little bit dizzy but entertained.
The book tells the story of Clare Savage, a Jamaican raised in America by a father seeking to distance himself from his race and culture. She receives advanced education in England, among those eager to remind her exactly of her perceived place in society as a woman of color. After a journey that takes her through Europe, she realizes her place is back in the country of her birth, disrupting a movie shoot as a way of fomenting revolution. The story weaves in observations of killers chased by demons who transcend the shackles society seeks to clasp on them to prevent their greatness. It explores myths and unpleasant realities in a way that reveals paradise is not perfect.
Cliff doesn’t name her protagonist until the third chapter. Instead, in the first chapter, she is known as, “A light-skinned woman, daughter of landowners, native born slaves, émigrés, Carib, Ashanti, English”, and in the second chapter, “Some girl throwing up into the deep end of the pool.” Prior to finding out her name, the reader learns about a horrendous quadruple murder, the savage condition that led to the murder, and the desperation of a vast community of Jamaican citizens oppressed by poverty while others feed on their country’s riches. While the setup initially appears to be extremely disorienting, it helps the reader commit to understanding how all these things fit together. The craftiness of the storytelling is one of the book’s strengths. Another asset is the character development of the supporting people around Clare. The mother who abandoned her in America to return back to Jamaica with Clare’s sister, the lover still fighting the demons of Vietnam, and the character known as Harry/Harriet who proved to be the most sympathetic character in the novel. Those characters provide background to the struggle Clare undergoes to become her own person.
Character development helps keep readers engaged because a major distraction is the back and forth timeline. The book opens with travelers on a truck painted with the motto “No Telephone to Heaven.” They’re traveling up a rainy slick road, which segues into a narrative about a party boy returning home while reflecting about a wild party he attended, and the horrific scene he encounters when he reaches home. The book then transitions to a murderer’s recollection of the abject poverty he grew up in prior to committing the treacherous act that indirectly relates to the main character’s beginning journey in America. With a little work, the reader can tie everything together, but this adds more weight to a story already burdened with issues.
A warning: Cliff’s use of English is interspersed with patois, which can be a little jarring. But, a helpful glossary of Jamaican terms is included. No Telephone to Heaven is a read that requires some effort and thought; however, it is a worthwhile trip I recommend. No carnival tickets required.
Reviewer: La Toya Hankins
La Toya Hankins is the author of SBF Seeking, and K-Rho: The Sweet Taste of Sisterhood. She is a native of North Carolina and currently resides in Durham, NC. Hankins considers writer and fellow Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc. member Zora Neale Hurston as her role model for her ability to capture the essence of the African American Southern experience and living the motto, “I don’t weep at the world, I’m too busy sharpening my oyster knife.” You can connect with LaToya on Facebook and Twitter.