READ THE WORLD – Grenada: The Ladies are Upstairs by Merle Collins

The Ladies are Upstairs is a collection of short stories. The first is about Rain Darling and the following ten follow Doux Thibaut who from the 1930s to the new century negotiates a hard life on the Caribbean island of Paz. As a child there is the shame of poverty and illegitimacy, and there are the hazards of sectarianism in an island divided between Catholic and Protestant, the rigidity of a class and racial system where, if you are Black, your white employer is always right. When Doux is an old lady moving between the homes of her children in Boston and New York, she wonders whether they and her grandchildren really appreciate what her life has taught her.

The first story, “Rain Darling”, is about fifty pages long and sees three women travelling to a hospital to see another, that being Rain. It then goes back and forth between Rain’s present in the hospital and her past from childhood to teen years to adulthood and how one secret shatters her whole world. Rain’s life is a sad one, stuck with an aunt who doesn’t care or nurture her, forcing her to leave school at a young age even though Rain is bright, not being able to be with her mother, sister or her beloved father. It’s really quite depressing.

What makes Rain’s story even sadder is how it’s juxtaposed with Doux’s. They both live lives that have ups and downs but how they, and their families, respond to those hazards of life is vastly different.

Doux is headstrong even as a child and will stand up for herself. She’s also smart and capable but she has teachers and family who support and encourage her. Looking at Rain and Doux it’s easy to see how vastly different a child’s life can be if they have people who care about them. There still may be issues like money, and Doux’s mother can be strict, but the fact that Doux gets to have an education and then goes to have a family of her own shows how life can be a little easier when you’ve got a firm foundation from childhood.

The ten short stories about Doux follow her as she grows up. In most she’s the main character and the story is from her point of view but in some it’s about the people around her including her children and even her midwife. There are also some stories that get a bit creepy which I wasn’t expecting. They’re like short horror stories as a woman finds an abandoned child on the street at night who is not what they seem or a woman who disappears from a car. It’s those kinds of supernatural tales that are passed on as something a friend’s uncle saw once and they’re quite disconcerting after the more standard family drama type stories.

Both Rain and Doux live in Paz, a stand in for Grenada, and the way the landscape and towns are described paint a vivid picture in your head. The fact that characters speak patois and other colloquial languages make them seem more real. Also, how language and speech patterns change over time, especially in Doux’s stories that span sixty or more years, helps show how people and society changes.

The Ladies are Upstairs is an interesting short story collection and consuming Rain and Doux’s stories back-to-back make each of them more layered and interesting.

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