‘If you must learn to love a man, he is probably not the man you should be loving.’—Read an excerpt from How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones

The JRB presents an excerpt from Cherie Jones’s debut novel How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House, recently longlisted for the 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction.

How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House
Cherie Jones
Little, Brown, 2021

5 January 1984

How do you learn to love a man?

You first ask yourself this question when you are a new bride. These are the days when Adan’s robberies buy you clothing to replace the awful dresses Wilma made. He buys you neon-yellow denim dresses and orange suede ankle boots with kitten heels and studded leather belts you can wear across your hips when you go with him to the dance hall to hear Alpha 24 and watch bad boys bob and weave to their best approximations of the music of their ancestors while wearing their fortunes around their necks. These are also the days when Adan first demonstrates his ability to box these clothes off of you, to tear these dresses and beat you with the heels of the very booties he first presented in a bow-topped box.

On the night you first ask yourself this question, you braid your own hair in fat box braids piled high on top of your head and you allow it to fall in heavy plaits down your back. You are wearing a little acid-washed denim jumpsuit that strains across a thickening belly and ends in a miniskirt you keep tugging back down your thighs, and a pink undershirt you have slashed and refastened with safety pins because this is the style. On this night you are still filled with heady joy each time you glance at your left hand and see Chinky’s handiwork, its tiny diamond casting rainbows across your eyes. You are still inebriated with the exultation of being free to dress this way, in clothes Wilma would disapprove of, bought for you by a husband and not just a boyfriend she despises.

On this night you have ironed Adan’s tracksuit and fretted over how to navigate the cuffs and collar so that they will sit perfectly on wrists you are only just learning to fear, and then you watch as your husband gets dressed, splashes himself in cologne, puts on the bright white sneakers you have spent the better part of an afternoon rubbing with White-X.

When the two of you arrive at the pasture on which Alpha 24 is hosting their New Year’s dance, Adan is swarmed by a bunch of his friends—women in fishnet jumpsuits and miniskirts and gold hoops that eclipse the movement of their jaws as they chew Chiclets gum. Men who call Adan big man and governor and touch their own bling-encrusted fists to his and nod. And in this group of laughing, drinking, dancing buddies stands Tone, quietly sipping a soft drink against the gaily branded side of a stall that vibrates in time to ‘Pass the Kouchie’.

How do you learn to love a man?

You may think you learn by doing. So after you have pressed your husband’s clothes and whitened his sneakers and walked with him to the dance in your kitten-heeled orange booties, you might tramp those suede booties through the damp grass to fetch him his drinks, his food and his Fanta, and then you might stand in front of him, allow it to seem like you are in his care, with your eyes perpetually on his cup to see when he might be in need of a refill. You might think that the flutter in your stomach when you watch him, the beauty of his black black skin and white white smile, and a broad high brow beneath a brown Kangol, is the love you are learning by doing all these things, it is the love you are meant to have and it will cushion the bruises the better you become at it.

How do you learn to love a man?

You might think you learn by obeying. So after your husband has had one too many gulps from a flask of whisky, you do not say anything when the laughter gets louder, the jokes get bawdier and he seems less immune to the fawning of vultures dressed to look like peacocks. He tells you to go home, you need your rest and the music might be too loud for the baby, and he rubs your belly and says he will send one of his soldiers with you to keep you safe on your walk there. You do not say anything when the soldier he summons is none other than Tone, the strong young man you first met by a gutter, a man who now wears the brooding countenance of a gathering storm. You do not tell your husband that he should not send you with this particular man; if he knows what is good for him, he should require you to stay by his side.

You struggle to keep up with Tone through the rickety stalls of galvanise and plywood from which vendors hawk fried fish and fishcakes and American hot dogs in fat yellow rolls of bread. He pays no mind to your rounded belly and even less to the glimmer of Chinky’s rough-set diamond in a gold band that used to be part of a chain Adan stole. No, Tone walks apace through the narrow alleys and roadways towards Baxter’s Village and the beach and the house you have recently moved into with your husband and hardly looks behind him to make sure you are keeping up, and though you are nearly panting from the effort of staying a few paces behind him, you keep your eyes on your orange booties, marching one in front of the other, being splattered by soft mud and scraped by rough pebbles and rocks and wood. When he takes you through an alley so narrow that a two-foot stone blocks the path, you have a dilemma. You don’t have a choice but to climb over this stone but you can’t because the miniskirt will not allow your legs to lift that high, and though you had resolved, when he disappeared years before, that you would never again call this boy in such a way that he can think you need him, you start to stumble and you have to take your eyes off the booties and call this name you cannot forget. 


How do you learn to love a man? 

You might think you learn by speaking, because of the warmth that fills your chest and escapes your lips when Tone helps you up and over the rock. When he asks you about your husband, about how you met him, the day you married him, the day you moved into his house on the beach, you talk and your body fills with heat. This warmth is the proof of your love, you consider, and speaking of it makes it stronger. It is to this love for your husband that you credit the heat in your chest when you speak, and not the memory of other days with this boy who is not your husband, whose arms hug your own and heave you upwards, over the obstacle and onto the part where the path is again clear.

The rain comes and the heat does not fizzle and this boy tells you that there is an entrance to the tunnels just close by this path you are on, do you remember the tunnels? And the warmth leaves your chest and fans up across your face and down and perhaps love is indeed obedience because when he asks you if you would like to try to run the rest of the way to Adan’s house on the beach or to follow him to that entrance, you tell this boy yes, yes you would like to follow him to that entrance, you would like to shelter in those tunnels.

But of course you do not only shelter in those tunnels, you do not only listen to the rain and wait for it to end. In those tunnels, you understand that you do not learn to love a man, because for the right man there is no need for the learning, the love is the most natural thing in the world. You understand that if you must learn to love a man, he is probably not the man you should be loving. 


Publisher information 

‘A bright new star. Cherie Jones draws us with skill, delicacy and glorious style into a vortex of Bajan lives on the edge.’—Diana Evans

In Baxter’s Beach, Barbados, Lala’s grandmother Wilma tells the story of the one-armed sister, a cautionary tale about what happens to girls who disobey their mothers.

For Wilma, it’s the story of a wilful adventurer, who ignores the warnings of those around her, and suffers as a result.

When Lala grows up, she sees it offers hope—of life after losing a baby in the most terrible of circumstances and marrying the wrong man.

And Mira Whalen? It’s about keeping alive, trying to make sense of the fact that her husband has been murdered, and she didn’t get the chance to tell him that she loved him after all.

How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House is the powerful, intense story of three marriages, and of a beautiful island paradise where, beyond the white sand beaches and the wealthy tourists, lies poverty, menacing violence and the story of the sacrifices some women make to survive.

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