6 Books to Read Before Visiting Jamaica

A collage of different books
A collage of different books | © PicMonkey
Culture Trip

Jamaica has a rich and varied history; African, European and Asian cultures mixed to create a unique identity that continues to be expressed powerfully in the arts. Most people will have an awareness of Jamaican music – Reggae, dub, ska, and performers such as Bob Marley – while Rastafarianism has worked its popular imagery into the minds of many travellers. Jamaican athletes such as Usain Bolt are also instantly recognisable. What people might be less familiar with is Jamaica in literature – read on as Culture Trip recommends six books to read before visiting this Caribbean island.

Wide Sargasso Sea

Released just four years after Jamaican independence in 1962, this book is a postcolonial exploration of some of the issues of that period. Set in the 1830s as a prequel to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847) the tale is told through three different voices, beginning and ending with that of the protagonist Antoinette – the ‘mad woman in the attic’ of Bronte’s more famous novel. By telling the backstory of Antoinette/Bertha, Rhys explores issues of inequality of race, sex and culture. Antoinette, slowly robbed of her name, cultural identity and liberty, is every bit the literary personification of the simultaneously possessed and dispossessed subjects of colonial powers. The novel was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 best English-language novels since 1923.

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys

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The Story of the Jamaican People

This well-illustrated book focuses on the history of the Africans brought to Jamaica by European colonisers. Taking an afrocentric view lends this book a very specific lens through which to view the history of Jamaica. Charting the journey of the Jamaican people from slavery and struggle through to emancipation and independence, this book should be read in conjunction with conventional history books to gain a comprehensive and balanced view of Jamaican history. Further reading will be required for those wishing to understand modern Jamaica, but the authors do an excellent job of presenting an often under-represented aspect of Jamaican history.

The Story of the Jamaican People by Philip Sherlock and Hazel Bennett

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The Dead Yard: A Story of Modern Jamaica

A contemporary portrait of modern Jamaica through first-hand journalistic reportage, The Dead Yard is a compelling account of Jamaica as it is today, populated by many interesting characters, from Chinese and Indian business owners to gangsters, rastas and corrupt officials. The many challenges and woes of this otherwise beautiful Caribbean island are brought vividly to life in this award winning book. That said, the picture it paints is not an encouraging one and dwells on the difficulties facing Jamaica to the detriment of all that is wonderful about this popular island. A highly recommended and compelling, if slightly depressing, tale of modern Jamaica.

The Dead Yard: A Story of Modern Jamaica by Ian Thomson

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The Harder They Come

Inspired by the eponymous film starring Jimmy Cliff, which was itself inspired by real-life events in Jamaica, this novel is a gripping evocation of postcolonial Jamaica. A young man travels to the city in search of fame and fortune but, as is often the case in such tales, suffers moral decline and eventual downfall. This novel paints a deeply textured cultural portrait populated with richly drawn characters that is utterly absorbing, and is a worthwhile read in and of itself, but particularly rewarding for anyone wanting to get under the skin of modern Jamaica.

The Harder they Come by Michael Thelwell

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A Brief History of Seven Killings

This award-winning novel is at once brilliant and difficult, captivating and uncomfortable, lyrical and jarring. A violent rendering of Jamaica’s recent history as told through several distinct voices, it is the technical brilliance of James’ writing that also lends a degree of challenge to the reader. The patois voices, while distinctive and authentic, can be difficult to follow – the book requires persistence, but is all the more rewarding for it. Covering a period from the tumultuous 1970s, during which the die was cast for modern Jamaican society, through to the early 1990s, this book captures the essence of Jamaica at the time. As the title suggests, A Brief History of Seven Killings views Jamaica through a particular optic: violently unsettling yet essential, just like the writing.

A Brief History of Seven Killings: A Novel by Marlon James

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Doctor No

Some lighter entertainment from the pen of Ian Fleming in the form of Doctor No. The Bond novels were written in the dying days of colonial Britain from the author’s home on the north coast of Jamaica, Goldeneye. Drawing on personal experience, both of Jamaica and of naval intelligence, Fleming sends Bond to Jamaica to investigate the disappearance of an MI6 officer. The fantastic cast of characters are rooted in fact, including the Chinese businessmen, the criminals for hire, the political plotters and schemers. One of the reasons this is such an entertaining book to read before visiting Jamaica is that many of the venues where the action is set are real places that can be visited. It is possible to drink in some of the same bars as Bond, drive the same roads and even visit the author’s home – now a luxury resort adjacent to James Bond Beach.

Doctor No by Ian Flemming

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