*** BIG SPOILER ALERT ***
It’s a poem, really… in spite of the brilliant characterizations, dead-on dialogue, penetrating observations, toxic lover’s quarrels, and tender romance. It’s really a poem… an allegory.
Son, a handsome, intelligent, but uneducated black man from Eloe, a small town in north Florida, jumps ship in the Caribbean and eventually ends up on a small island called Isle des Chevaliers (Island of the horseman). He’s on the run, has committed a crime, and is tired of worrying about being caught. He’s also hungry and weak. He makes his way to the mansion on top of the tallest hill, enters the unlocked home and lives there almost unnoticed for five days. During that time he steals a little food, mostly chocolate, and a few bottles of water. He hides in closets and only comes out at night. He discovers that in addition to Valerian Street the wealthy old man who owns the place, his much younger trophy wife, Margaret (the former Miss Maine), and Valerian’s black cook, Ondine, and butler, Sydney, there is also a young woman living there. She too is black… mulatto actually, the niece of the servants. Her name is Jadine (Jade). Son steals into her room at night just to watch her sleep, night after night, and he falls in love with her.
There’s tension between Valerian and Margaret. Now in his 80s, Valerian is content to stay in the greenhouse he’s constructed to grow plants that could better grow in his hometown of Philadelphia. His wife is planning a Christmas dinner and has invited their son, Michael, whom they haven’t seen in years. One night she goes into her closet to get some clothes and finds Son just sitting there, a huge black man… a stranger. She becomes frantic, screams, and Sydney comes with a gun and brings Son down into the dining room. As contrary as ever to his wife’s needs, Valerian invites Son to stay for dinner. The two chat; Jade joins the conversation, and Son is taken aback by her friendliness to the old white man who has been her patron and paid for her education at the Sorbonne. Son is allowed to live in the house for a few days while Valerian tries to get papers that will let him to go back to the US.
Christmas comes; Michael doesn’t show; none of the other guests show up either. So Valerian invites the servants to share Christmas dinner. The servants get dressed up and, during dinner, Ondine reveals what she alone knows: that Margret tortured young Michael as a little boy. She stuck pins in him, burned him with cigarettes, had to fight off the temptation to do much more. No wonder he hasn’t come for Christmas. Valerian is stunned, Margaret is destroyed, Sydney and his Ondine are terrified that the disclosure will cost them their jobs. And that’s when Son takes the opportunity to coax his way into Jade’s bed; they become lovers, escape to New York for a sweet romantic winter, then they go on to Son’s hometown of Eloe where Jade comes face to face with the disparity between her educated view of the world and Son’s simpler, glamorized understanding of his simple roots. They fight; try to destroy each other with insults about education, ethnic identity, purity and destiny. In the end Jade leaves New York and returns to the island to find that somehow the estate has sifted back into some semblance of order. The servants are still there, still surviving; Margaret has rationalized her actions and even tried to make friends with Ondine. Valerian is feeling older, much sadder, but he too is surviving. Jade decides to return to Paris where she’s had a successful modeling career and a white suitor who’s ready to marry her.
A week later, Son comes to the island in search of Jade. He wants to go to the mansion and find out where she is and how to join her. Instead Valerian’s former washerwoman tricks Son into pursuing a course much more dangerous than tracking Jade. There are said to be hundreds of horseman on the island, descendants of the first salves brought there. Some say they still live in the hills. “Why not join them,” the washerwoman asks Son as she rows him through the mists between the islands and drops him off on a very remote rocky beach. Why not join the horsemen? And as the book ends Son runs from the boat into the hills to join the wild horseman on this remote part of the island, whether they really exist or not.
A stunning story, a revelation really. I listened to the audio book read beautifully by Desiree Coleman.