A Magic-Filled Island Where Life’s Struggles Rage

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Popisho is a sensual place. The island is overgrown with flowering vines and fruit trees, ocean waves break along the beaches and mouthwatering food is around every corner — jackfruit and pastry, sausages, cornbread, prawns in lime, goat cheese and sour cherries, pumpkin pudding with caramel and cinnamon. The air is rich with the scent of ginger, green pepper and onion, and there is “dark, unrefined sugar crunching under their feet.”

Equally ubiquitous throughout the novel is sex, in all of its beautiful and frightening forms. There is sex for fun, for the hope of children, for love and passion, wed and unwed, straight and gay. But there is also forlorn sex, threatening sex, prostitution both empowered and powerless, sex withheld and diverted and regretted.

The book is often bawdy and unexpectedly funny. Partway into the story, all the women of the island feel their “pum-pums” drop to the ground at their feet. How do you reattach a vulva, and perhaps just as important, does one want to? One woman puts hers in the refrigerator so it won’t spoil, but another woman teases her that someone might mistake it for a piece of pork and fry it up. Another tosses hers out the window, glad to be free of the nuisance. Eventually some of the pum-pums are used in a magical spell that harks back to the Greek comedy “Lysistrata,” while other so-called “free-range pum-pums” wreak comic chaos around the island.

In such a way, Ross works her own magic, transforming humanity’s worn-out suffering into something new and astonishing. Addiction becomes a dusty, thrumming moth that we can hold in the palm of our hand. With it separated from ourselves, we are able to observe its fragility, its strangeness and terrible power. Women’s complicated relationship with their own sexuality is similarly detached, set free, seen anew.

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