The Dead Yard : Jamaican Book Review

About the Book :

Jamaica used to the source of much of Britain’s wealth, an island where slaves grew sugar and the money flowed out in vast quantities. It was a tropical paradise for the planters, a Babylonian exile for the Africans shipped to the Caribbean. Since independence in 1962, it has gradually become associated with a new kind of hell, a society where extreme violence has become ordinary and gangs control the areas where most Jamaicans live.

Ian Thomson’s brave new book explores a country of lost promise, a country that most older Jamaicans in Britain cannot recognise as their own. Once a beacon of optimistic third world politics, the island is now sunk in corruption, hopelessness and drug wars. Jamaica’s music was once the lilting anthem of idealists everywhere; now it is a repetitive glorification of homophobia and violence.

Thomson walks the streets and rides the buses that most middle-class Jamaicans, let alone white visitors, avoid like the plague. He describes poverty, the reality of gang rule and police brutality. He meets Jamaicans who are trying to make a difference, and astonishingly complacent members of the elite.

This is an unforgettable portrait of a country that has had a huge influence on British culture, for good and ill.


Book Review:

Reviewed by By Decca Aitkenhead , The Guardian
A tour of Jamaica reveals beauty and brutality but overlooks ordinary life

The Dead Yard is in one sense quite a brave book, for while Jamaicans may be highly critical of their country they can be very sensitive about foreigners joining in. “You visitors are always getting it wrong,” one tells him. “Either it’s golden beaches or guns, guns, guns, guns. Is there nothing in between?” Given that almost all Jamaica’s problems can be traced back to self-interested exploitation by foreign powers, such indignation is understandable, and Thomson does an excellent and long-overdue job of exporting blame back to its rightful Anglo-American shores. The book’s substantial shortcoming, however, is its failure to illuminate everything else “in between”.

Thomson’s travels introduce him to lots of wealthy white Jamaicans, foreigners, returnees, politicians, churchmen and business people, but disappointingly few of the ordinary poor. “The frequent appearance in The Dead Yard of white and upper-echelon Jamaicans might suggest a skewed image of island society,” he admits, but his excuse – “white Jamaicans still wield huge (if not uncontested) power” – omits the more honest explanation. Poor Jamaican society is notoriously impenetrable to an outside reporter, and Thomson didn’t allow the time – which in fairness could mean years, maybe decades – to access a complex and elusive culture suspicious of strangers with notepads.

As a consequence, he misses all the energy and hilarity and wit – the ingenuity and unpredictability, the melodrama and entertainment – which give the island its magnificent charm. When he does venture into the Kingston ghetto he’s a bit scared, and his account is impressionistic, lacking depth or character, while most of rural Jamaica is missed altogether. His encounters are often surprisingly dull – the anecdotes flat, the dialogue wooden – and though I know a lot of the people he meets in his book, I’m not sure I would recognise any of them from his descriptions.

Had I never been to Jamaica, I’d undoubtedly understand the country a lot better having read The Dead Yard. But I would have perplexingly little sense of what it feels like to be there.


About the Author
Ian Thomson – ‘a chronicler of formidable power’ Guardian – is the author of Bonjour Blanc, an acclaimed book about Haiti, and of Primo Levi (‘one of the best literary biographies of the year, Observer). He lives in London with his wife and children.


Where to Get the Book:
“The Dead Yard” is available at the Guardian Book Store