Book of the Week | Dew Angels ( review)

Dew Angels is one of the best young adult novels I have read in a long time. It’s not just Melanie Schwapp’s strong, lucid writing; believable, engaging characters; compelling plotlines; and snappy pace, but also how the reader sees the world through fourteen-year-old Nola’s eyes. My ‘inner teenager’ certainly identified with underlying aspects of the story: the need to be loved and to belong; the agonies of first love and heartbreak; the power of anger; to feel comfortable in my skin and at one with the roots of my identity; and, most of all, the need for self acceptance. These are concerns that never completely go away even when one is a so-called ‘adult’ who has – supposedly! – learned how to handle things.

At birth, Nola Chambers is ostracized by her family for having skin “black as a moonless night”, while her siblings have skin “as golden as the retreating sun”. She is obliged by the headmistressof her school to do homework with Dahlia whose mother runs Merlene’s Bar and Grill, known locally for being a den of evil. “There was music coming from the bar. The deep reggae bass seemed to spur on her racing heart as she walked past the red door. A woman in a tight orange mini skirt and tubed top leaned against the jamb, blowing streams of smoke from her nose as she drew on a cigarette.” The gambit works and Nola discovers the meaning of committment, friendship and fun. She also learns that gossip is malicious and fuels prejudice founded on ignorance, fear and envy.

In Dahlia’s home, hugs were safe, happy. But in the Chambers’ house, hugs, like everything else, brought pain.” Nola is regularly berated and beaten by her father: “He hit her with the buckle. He was never really fussy about where the blows landed. Nola always had to turn away to protect her face, and cross her arms across her chest to protect her breasts.” Her mother works her fingers to the bone, all her beauty and joy gone, making jams and chutneys to sell.  She cowers in front of her husband and does nothing to protect her daughter. When Merlene remarks, “I wish our men would stop beatin’ up the women”, Nola begins to realise she does not have to sit there and take it.

Nola carries her beloved Grampy and his stories with her through the dark times, her favourite being the one about the Dew Angels. “Grampy told her that at dawn, while the world slept, the angels came down from heaven, perched the sun on the horizon, and washed the earth beneath the pale blue light.

After a near-death experience, Nola ends up living in downtown Kingston. “Run and never stop till they were far from every human being who would ever make that child feel ashamed of who she was; of how she looked.” The neighbourhood is ramshackle, but safe and friendly, until a slick gangster weaves his Mafiosi magician’s web and trickery around it. He benefits from a changing economic climate: “Rising food costs and living expenses were viewed as sabotage from the government to keep the ‘Black man down’, and the anger and resentment for the upper crust of society diffused into the streets like a poisonous gas.” Nola begins to smoke weed, play truant, and develops a ‘fuck you’ attitude.