Friday, January 7, 2011

Review: The Jumbee by Pamela Keyes

Found via: Forever Young Adult

Phantom of the Opera is far from my favorite musical - even among Andrew Lloyd Webber shows it doesn't rank very high (my favorite is totally Cats and I feel no shame for this. Well, not much). Even so, I think as a theatre geek I'm contractually obligated to at least pay attention to a book that re-tells the story of the classic musical (and, of course, novel). The Jumbee takes the basic premise of Phantom, but instead of 19th century Paris opera, it's contemporary Caribbean high school theater. Keyes deftly weaves the themes of the original into the new story, with just enough twists to keep even those of us who know Phantom guessing.

The JumbeeFollowing the tragic death of her father, famed Shakespearean actor Alan Legard, Esti and her mother relocate from Oregon to her father's enclave on the island of Cariba. Both women are hoping that a change of scenery will help them move on; Esti in particular is hoping to rekindle her passion for acting by getting the lead in the prestigious high school's production of Romeo & Juliet.

Cariba is an island steeped deeply in tradition and superstition. When a student dies within days of Esti moving to the island, tongues start to wag. When Esti begins rehearsing in the dark theater, alone, rumors begin that she's communicating with a jumbee - a ghost who is often malevolent. When Esti begins hearing a voice in the dark with her, she's not sure what to think, either. The voice - Alan - claims he was a student of her father's. But why did her father never mention this brilliantly talented student with the sexy voice? And if he's truly there, why does he always insist that the lights must remain on? Esti isn't particularly superstitious, but if there's anywhere ghost stories could be true, it would be on the island of Cariba.

Just as Esti is sure she's falling in love with the mysterious Alan, her childhood friend and resident playboy, Rafe, returns to the island from LA. Rafe and Esti immediately resume their friendship, with the possibility of something more always bubbling beneath the surface, but Esti is torn between the two boys. One with whom she has a lifetime of history, the other who has reawakened her passion for the stage. With her other relationships and responsibilities faltering, Esti must discover who Alan truly is, and make a fateful choice.

There are plenty of obvious parallels here between The Jumbee and Phantom of the Opera: the love triangle, a mysterious teacher, a diva who gets every coveted role even when a more talented ingenue appears. However, that doesn't necessarily make the novel predictable. For example, even though I know Erik turns out to be a real man rather than a ghost, Alan's corporealness (or lack thereof) goes a long time without being explicitly confirmed or denied.

Because it's not clear who - or what - Alan is, there are some parts of his and Esti's relationship that made me uncomfortable, but could plausibly be explained by jumbee magic - or just an extremely accomplished manipulator. They don't have a healthy relationship at times, but it's not quite Bella/Edward levels of creepiness.

Speaking of creepy, Keyes does a fabulous job of creating the atmosphere of the fictional Cariba. The school has a sordid past as a plantation with a particularly sadistic slave owner, giving rise to the stories of the jumbees and their various hauntings. The island is in equal parts a lush tropical paradise and the setting of a horror film.

Keyes also integrates the Shakespeare into the text well. Enough happens off stage that the scenes that show the rehearsals or performances for Romeo & Juliet don't feel boring or overdone.

The story is thoroughly enjoyable with some great scenes and set pieces, but the actual writing felt awkward and clunky at times, which holds me back from recommending this whole heartedly. Fans of Phantom should enjoy it, and the unique setting and diverse cast are also major bonus points, but the actual writing style kept me at a bit of a distance.

In other news: Yesterday was the official start of the 2011 Comment Challenge hosted by MotherReader. The challenge lasts for 3 weeks and the goal is to leave 100 comments on other book blogs in order to encourage the habit of commenting. I did this last year and had a blast "meeting" new people and finding new blogs. Welcome new readers who found me through the challenge, and I encourage everyone else to join in the fun!


Alex said...

This book sound interesting. I liked the original Phantom book, hated the ALW play, but this sounds like a good spin on the original. I will have to put it on my TBR list.

Kate Coombs said...

I saw this in the bookstore and was wondering if it was any good--thanks for the review! I'm not a big Phantom fan, anyway. The heroine is just too swoony. :)

Lindsay N. Currie said...

Oh wow, great review! You've actually made me interested in this book, especially with a minor in Shakespeare LOL! Found you on the Comment Challenge and will follow you so I can pop on back again:)

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