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Pink Icing

By Pamela Mordecai

Insomniac, 243 pages, $21.95

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The first pleasure in Pamela Mordecai's prose is her assurance of voice. Take Colleen, a young girl in Kingston, Jamaica, who is ready to begin school, joining her older sisters, but who's held back by a father who insists that his wife needs the child at home. Judging from Colleen's take, Papa may be right. "I don't like when Mama sigh. Carol say that you lose blood when you sigh and Mama thin like a chew-down pencil already. I fret that she going to just drop, plap, one day, if she go on sighing out blood."

A torn-up photo in the kitchen garbage gives Colleen a hint of what's at stake. The same day, Mama quietly locks herself in the bedroom and fails to respond to Colleen's knocking.

The story's power lies in structural finesse and sharp observation: an unhurried rise to crisis, an unsentimental vision of the fragile cloth of family unravelling. Judgment is reserved for the reader.

Two following stories leap from a gruesome biblical vision of worldly corruption to the ineffable pleasures of pink icing. The contrast feels more apt than jarring. The real icing on the cake of Mordecai's title story is its probing of race and class in Kingston. Walking home from school, a girl ponders the social rankings of her various neighbours.

Folks with lighter skin in the "upstairs houses" are blessed with clout and "colour." A dark playmate says "she is not going to marry no man black like her," but a man "with good colour to improve her children's own." With the first bite of the longed-for icing in the street outside a cake shop, flavour seems irrelevant. It's the pink that matters.

In Alvin's Ilk, a village schoolboy is in hot water for a spree of sabotaging school supplies. Meanwhile, chance has placed him in a position to perform a lifesaving act for the local Chinese grocer. The ethical parable here remains admirably inexplicit, borne along on the subtle shift of Alvin's moral compass. We see the dawning of compassion amid thickets of callow self-interest.

Crucial Concern is kick-started by a mysterious conception. "Hold-and-Haul (everybody called him H&H) and Simey were beating their brains to find out who had insprignated Miss Rosie Messia's one-daughter, Isolyn." The burgeoning mama is young. We never quite find out how young, but we do learn that her premature leap to motherhood will not matter too much in these parts, so long as . . . well, I'll say only that the story is an eye-opening tour through Kingston's very particular perils, both public and private.

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Blood expands on the perils, opening with a teenager's first-ever use of a knife in anger. "Right in the womb of his mind is a feeling that terrify him more than anything.

"He know he like the power, the knowledge that if his hand move, that soft neck would get cut and blood would flow."

Here the moral compass is set spinning as we observe a sensitive young man ripe for a tumble into Jamaica's criminal subculture.

Mordecai serves up violence, internalized racism, the varied failures of fathers, brothers, wives and mothers and children with an unexpected yet highly fluid mix of picaresque humour and unsparing human observation. Where the Jamaican rhythms and references and vocabulary of her narrators might sometimes confuse, her story structures and sharp character studies work to deftly gather things together. The book deserves and rewards a contemplative read.

Jim Bartley is The Globe and Mail first-fiction reviewer.

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