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Originally published Sunday, August 2, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

'Basil's Dream': tropical climate, political nightmare

"Basil's Dream" by Christine Hale is a Bermuda-based tale of political corruption and family turmoil.

Special to The Seattle Times

"Basil's Dream"

by Christine Hale

Livingston Press, 292 pp., $16.95

The biblical passage "to whom much is given, much will be required," might have included a photograph of Marcus Passjohn, the beleaguered leading man of Christine Hale's debut novel, "Basil's Dream."

In this languid tale set in the months after 9/11, Marcus is leader of Bermuda's opposition party and the sole hope of the island's black underclass. Government corruption and pressures from the British and American companies based in Bermuda to avoid U.S. taxes are the demons Marcus battles.

Yet, from the first chapter, it is clear Marcus is losing his grip on his government seat and on his increasingly angry son, Zef.

The back story on Marcus is that of an island boy packed off to England who returns with a law degree, a white wife and a need to prove his blackness from that point on.

Once his unhappy wife leaves him and their young son, Marcus spends his days defending — usually pro bono — put-upon islanders like Ramo, a dreadlocked wearing, Jah-quoting, police scapegoat. Zef, angry about his absent mother and his English bloodline, latches onto Ramo.

Marcus' nemesis is Isaiah Barnes, the deputy minister of justice. Isaiah is deliciously written as a portrait of evil, stuffing his corpulent body into custom suits, biting off cigar tips and ordering thugs to ransack Marcus' office, and worse.

The locale of "Basil's Dream" sounds like the backdrop for a sweet reverie, but the story is a roiling nightmare. The title is taken from a squat building painted a bilious green, where bread bakes upstairs while downstairs angry islanders plot against the government.

Hale writes with confidence about Bermuda, having lived there in the late 1980s to the early '90s with her husband, who worked for an island-based American company, and their two small children.

She offers astute and scalpel-sharp assessments of social and political norms on Bermuda. Ramo is a man "resolved to be black," one who would be rotting in jail if not for Marcus' help — it is good fortune that Ramo accepts as his due, Hale writes, "because he is an outcast black man whom Marcus' ideals script him to defend."

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Basically, Ramo is a self-entitled jerk. "Why you let these things happen, Marcus,?" another put-upon and self-entitled islander fumes when on another day Marcus fails to be Superman. "What you doin' all day in the Parliament?"

Like a modern-day Sisyphus, Marcus' toils never end. His mounting frustration is evident when he hurls this rhetorical question at his son: "But if I know what I'm doing is hopeless and I choose to do it, does that make me a fool? Do I deserve your contempt simply for being who I am?"

The answer comes from the woman with whom he has fallen in love. Lucy is an American, whose husband works for an American company in Bermuda. Here Hale's blade dulls slightly as she draws a bland picture of a bored, unloved housewife. One wants to root for these two and say, damn the racial politics! But Marcus is conscripted to his people, a point an islander throws at his new love: "He don't belong to you. He got work to do."

Harsh words set within a lush excursion into race, politics and love in Bermuda.

Lynne K. Varner is an editorial writer for The Seattle Times.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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