The Lesson (2019), by Cadwell Turnbull, is a solid first-contact sort of novel that feels fresh due to its unique setting in the Virgin Islands and has some serious depth to it in the way it uses the encounter between aliens and the islanders as a vehicle for exploring colonialism/race relations, though it left me wanting a little bit more in terms of character and craft.
The novel opens pre-landing with an introduction to the various major characters, including:
- Derrick: a young sci-fi/fantasy fan who will eventually become assistant to the alien ambassador
- Patrice: his neighbor and best friend
- Jackson: Patrice’s father, a teacher and someone going through a mid-life crisis
- Aubrey: Patrice’s mother, also learning more about herself
- Grams/Harriet: Derrick’s stern grandmother
- Lee: Derrick’s younger sister
- Mera: the alien ambassador
Other characters also get some POV chapters, especially later in the book though fewer in number, with some even allowed just one. We get just enough pre-contact writing to get a sense of who these people are, what their relationships are to one another, and then “a giant seashell” arrives in the sky and “Patrice thought to herself, this was how change occurred: something on the horizon closing in. She doesn’t seem imposing at first, but then she’s close enough for you to see the knife hidden under her dress.”
From there we shift briefly into a history of early invasion waves on the islands, culminating with the Carib and Arawak tribes noticing “boats bobbing on the sea, with large wings like bats … and pointed spears at their fronts. Boats much bigger than theirs and infinitely stranger.”
Turnbull then jumps forward five years with the Ynaa (the aliens) having settled in their landing area (and only there) and doling out scientific/technological advances as “payment” for them being allowed to stay unmolested while they work on some unnamed research project. The bribery via technology keeps the world quiet even as the Ynaa, who have a cultural tendency toward immediate, lethal violence, regularly kill islanders who provoke them, often using their far greater strength to literally rip people in half. The Ynaa take on human form (though they move strangely) when they exit their ship, which isn’t all that often save for Mera, the ambassador who tries to keep encounters to a minimum. By this time Patrice and Derrick have gone out and then broke up when Patrice decided to go to school stateside while Derrick stayed on the island and now works as Mera’s assistant, a job that gains him nothing but disdain and anger from his fellow islanders. Aubrey and Jackson have divorced. Jackson is working on a book — “The Immortal Witch” — about the Ynaa and about his unique theory that Mera didn’t actually arrive with them but has been on Earth for centuries, while Aubrey is in a relationship with another woman, something she is still feeling her way through (as is Jackson). As The Lesson moves forward, more voices enter the narrative, including those affected sharply by some of the Ynaa killings, and we —and the characters — get the sense that things are inevitably hurtling toward a major confrontation.
Jackson’s theory about Mera turns out to be correct, and Turnbull uses the fact that she’s lived as a scout on Earth for so long to present some harrowingly powerful flashback scenes involving the brutal treatment of the islanders by the Europeans and a slave revolt. There is, of course, a clear connection being drawn here between the utterly remorseless violence the Ynaa inflict on the islanders (there is no difference, as we’re shown in the Ynaa mind, between tearing a dog in half and tearing a human in half) and the brutality of the European slavers. And the same holds for how the world turned a blind eye to slavery because of the benefits it brought (cheap goods, etc.) then just as the modern world turns a blind eye to events on the island because of all the medical and technological advances they gain from the Ynaa.
But Turnbull is interested in more than a simplistic, didactic “slavery bad, colonialism bad” statement. Or even the much more timely criticism of white privilege, as in the description by one of the islanders of a Ynaa:
He recognized the expression on her face … Tranquility. Not a care in the world. The Ynaa was certain that nothing could touch her. How wonderful it must be to float through the world with all that certainty, knowing you could do anything, and it wouldn’t come back to you. How wonderful it must be to feel safe.
For one, he begins the invasions of the islands not with the Europeans but with the Ciboney, who had landed 500 years earlier on the islands, driven out by the Arwaks, who were themselves raided by the Caribs. And when the slave revolt takes place, it isn’t centered simply on the idea of “freedom,” but is driven by a hierarchal sense of loyalty to kings and is horrifically violent in the presented details, as when a mother is “hacked to death” and her newborn killed in terrible fashion. All of this somewhat complicates the anti-colonial reading and broadens it into a wider exploration of power and resistance. Similarly, Turnbull isn’t interested in stacking the deck for the human rebels whose ranks include more than a few flawed characters and whose violence is not presented as wholly innocent, as purely cleansed via justification over the Ynaa killings of islanders. Violence, social violence in particular, and resistance justified by the acts of oppressors are always complicated creations and actions and Turnbull doesn’t shy away from that, presenting us a much more subtle, much more thoughtful examination.
This is certainly the strong point of The Lesson, and while the writing is mostly smooth and often offers up some wonderful writing on a line by line basis, the novel isn’t without some issues. While I liked that we met the characters a bit before the first contact, and then jumped ahead five years of time to the impact, that first section of the novel felt tonally/stylistically different in that I felt I was reading a YA novel (much of it was focused on the relationship between Derrick and Patrice). The gradual widening of the novel into more POVs was effective in showing us a variety of responses to the Ynaa (and the underlying meaning they represent) and the violence, but the execution wasn’t quite smooth. Some shifts felt abrupt, some of the balance felt off, and I wanted to spend more time with some of the major characters whose presence in the novel was diminished by the other POVs. Here, I didn’t want fewer POVs but did want a longer book (something I don’t normally wish for in a review) so as to give space for these characters to breathe and become fully fleshed out a bit more. Similarly, two subplots involving a pregnancy and cancer could have done with more time. Finally, more pages would have allowed Turnbull to give us more context regarding the alien impact and the world’s response beyond the islands. I didn’t need a lot, but that bit of world-building felt very thin.
These are definite flaws, as noted, but I’ll happily take a book that explores complicated topics in a manner worthy of that complexity and that has me asking for more words rather than fewer. And I’ll certainly be interested in seeing what Turnbull does next.