Black Lightning by Roger Mais

One of the most enjoyable and personally impactful books I’ve read recently is Roger Mais’s Black Lightning. I will eventually blog more about how and why this book was important to me. In the meantime, you can read my short but sweet review below.


Lightning in a Book


Black Lightning, Roger Mais, Peepal Tree, £8.99, ISBN 9781845231019

This is a taut, atmospheric novel set around a Jamaican forest in the early 50s. Decisions are made and ripples flow out, into its circle of surrounding characters. This is especially true for Jake – blacksmith-by-day, husband, sculptor, scripture-quoter; and Moses, his overlooked companion, whose wistfulness unwinds in his accordion-playing.

Male bitterness is evident early on. Amos’s face creeps into “a malicious smile”. Jake’s laughter comes tinged with contempt. Even in the throes of courtship, Glen struggles with a violent urge to hurry love’s chase. George, the youngest, suffers from a more ignorant strain: “You make a girl get sassy with you, and she get away with it…”

Female characters thus become sort of ‘torture-bearers’, divided into two clear camps. The elder function as cautionary oracles, the younger are plagued by constant indecision, hinging largely around men. Miriam shuttles between literal torch-holder for Glen, as he carves his sculptors on darkened evenings, and the resultant resentment from volatile beau, Glen. Her mother, Bess, racked with misplaced guilt over Jake’s recent misfortunes, comes undone at a wasp found in a pie. Thankfully, Mais’ nuanced emotional strokes turn a string of two-handers into complex narrative shifts. The results would do justice to any stage or syllabus.

Social context is perhaps oblique here – Mais’ earlier works refer more fully to wider Jamaican culture. This may be a product of portraying Jake a sort of everyman.  There are also simmering suggestions about Bible-based morality, and tense hints at mutual male love – but so hidden you might miss them.

That aside, fine foreshadowing, a circular plot, and evocative themes around nature and manhood are reminiscent of Steinbeck at his best. Its ending compelled me to retrace my steps; turn back to the start, read it again.