Reviewed by: Monica Minott
Till I’m Laid to Rest, Ellis’ third novel ,deals with the social and personal problems connected with poverty and migration to the USA. The issue of race is understandably highlighted, and the reader cannot miss the not so obvious consequential damage that was left in the wake of slavery. However, the writer never attempts to lay the blame at any one doorstep.
The novel tells the story of Shirley, who grew up in Central Village, Jamaica. “Growing up in Central Village made Shirley accustomed to violence. It was always around her in some form.” This is the under-face of Ellis’ tale. He subtly threads this message from the first chapter through the life of Shirley to the last page, where Shirley, a “nice” brown-skinned Jamaican woman, once poised for success, is led handcuffed off the airplane that takes her back to Jamaica, the country she had turned her back on.
She had left Jamaica for a better life. Ellis played with the probability that Shirley would escape from all the unfortunate limitations that are so often associated with poverty: limited education, poor access to health care, and housing. It was like a chess game where the odds were stacked against the new player. In her teenage years Shirley rejected her home community, which was considered a slum. Ellis shows how easy it was for her to get caught in the get-rich-quick fad. The general dissatisfaction drove her personal dissatisfaction. She eagerly abandoned the small, steady steps which could lead to progress. She traded these steps for the easy life served up on a make-believe platter served up by Mark, and later by Moet. Shirley had no illusions. Moet was a drug dealer and a murderer. "Life required compromises Moet taught her.” And life in America necessitated more compromise for a black man than life in any other country.
Shirley started this journey when she first compromised banking regulations. “Though company procedure dictated that the client should be present, she acted on her instinct… She was rewarded with a little red Gucci bag, Ray Ban glasses and Elizabeth Taylor shampoo.” Before that time she had been “a junior supervisor with a reputation for diplomacy and good judgement.”
Mark, a “big belly white man” as she referred to him, planted his seed of dissatisfaction. “ A woman like you wasting you time working in a bank like that …. I bet they don’ pay you nothing.” Shirley was eager to agree, “You right about that.” She shared with Dawn her best friend her vow never to sleep with Mark. Yet she loved the wonderful places he took her to, and she loved the gifts.” Ellis cleverly demonstrates that she was unable to differentiate between fact and fiction. Shirley went along with Mark’s program while denying the creeping relationship, until she was caught on her back. From that time, there was no going back.
“Tell me about America ….” “Just shut you eyes and dream.”
“And all you need is a visa.” “Job easy to get.” Shirley was in bed with Mark, “the big belly white man.”
The character of Shirley is illustrated in how easily she abandons traits that she had relied on in spite of the ridicule of an associate: her pride and honesty. “The day after Mark left she transferred US$200,000.00 from his account to hers and kept it there long enough to generate an impressive bank statement. She certified the statement with the bank’s official seal.” Shirley’s character was a real -life riches-but-no-rags; she wanted what she wanted, and she wanted it fast, without much effort, and not too much pain. Mark fuelled her belief in The Promised Land.
Ellis keeps the reader riveted at the edge: of a show, a fight, a heartbreak, a life un-raveling; with each step Shirley moves towards a certain end.
“ I have a visa.”
“I have a visa …. You don’t sound too excited for me Mark, is everything all right?”
“All you do if you coming, when you coming, make sure you give me plenty notice. Remember I am a man with plenty plans.” That night, lying naked in bed, she contemplated how far she had come from Sufferer’s Heights in such a short time.”
Ellis’ use of imagery is sometimes a little overdone: “She arrived in Miami on a summer night lit and sparkling like a Christmas tree.” Another such example: “They walked by a club that spewed calypso.” He constantly warns the readers that Mark was not for the long term:
“So tell me,” he said, “when you going back?” “Listen we doing some refurbishing at the house… but not to worry, I set up something with one of my cousin. She agree to have you stay till refurbishing finish.”
Shirley’s decision to quit her job and take a chance was conveyed in a voice that stated facts without conveying the writer’s sentiment about what she had done. This could be described as voice neutral. The writer uses voice neutral in many other instances, taking himself out the picture. The reader in such instances is left to project his own expectations.
Ellis should be commended for his unflinching ‘face-up’ to truth, as hard and as unpalatable for the reader as it is. We acknowledge that he has continued the debate; Is migration the answer for us as a people?