Books for the Beach: Island People by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro

Want some stimulating reading for your next visit? This long and thoughtful travelogue explores the rich and complex culture of the Caribbean, calling into Trinidad, Cuba, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Haiti and many of the smaller islands.

We feel a trip to the Caribbean is somewhat wasted if you spend most of it lying by beach or pool – but we also appreciate what a delicious downtime this can be, especially as it’s a fine opportunity to READ. And if you want to know what mighty historic, cultural and political undercurrents are flowing through the mountains and villages behind your resort, then Joshua Jelly-Schapiro’s Island People (Canongate, £22) is a book both enjoyable and illuminating.

A New York-based writer, geographer and scholar, Joshua was raised in New England then studied in Connecticut where he “developed an inchoate sense… that it was in the Caribbean that many of the salient characteristics of the Americas at large – traumatic histories of colonialism and genocide and slavery; migration and creolisation as facts of life; the persistent sense of cosmopolitan possibility and newness inherent to a New World – were brought into starkest relief”.

Since then Joshua’s been travelling back and forth to the region for almost a decade, and this pleasingly thick book is his compelling and contemplative report on what he’s encountered. The author is particularly fond of Trinidad and Cuba, but there are also meaty explorations of Jamaica, Puerto Rico and Hispaniola along with entertaining skirmishes with several islands of the Lesser Antilles including Barbados, Grenada and Antigua. Music and literature feature strongly and you’ll learn a lot about all manner of subjects from the legacy of Bob Marley to the story of the last Caribs now living in Dominica to the notion that Barbuda was once an experimental breeding ground for super-slaves.

We’re all familiar with the way the world likes to dismiss the Caribbean as a sunny and inconsequential playground of beaches and holidays – well, here’s the backstory and while it ain’t always pretty it’s certainly engrossing. There’s a proper, awkward and still evolving place behind all those welcome smiles and rum punches, and that’s what Island People happily unearths.

Buy this in hardback from an independent bookshop with free UK delivery
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