There were beds that were still made up, kitchens where there were plates on the tables, offices that still had files on people who had been sick. It seems like people just vanished. The lore was that the place was haunted, that something had happened to the lepers. When I started doing research, I couldn’t find anything. No one knows what happened to them.
Yanique’s “How to Escape from a Leper Colony” is intricately woven with the elements one can detect there in the author’s initial intrigue with the true story of an island that was once home to lepers. The story she weaves is one of folklore and fantasy, mystery, childhood innocence, abandonment, death and disease, all of which have the ability to hold the reader captive from beginning to end.
Most of the other stories in the collection are just as well-crafted and contain similar elements of lore, mystery, abrupt abandonment or escape, and disease of some sort, which combine to create believable gloomy worlds both in the
Two other long pieces in the collection are well woven works of opposites. In “The International Shop of Coffins” three characters meet in a coffin shop—the proprietor, an immigrant priest, and a schoolgirl—and like the bridge characters, though their lives are vastly different, they become intersected, but in this case (unlike the case of the bridge characters) in a more believable manner. Their stories become entwined by paired thematic opposites—loss and recovery, innocence and awakening, freedom and imprisonment.
In “The Saving Work,” the stories of two families of mixed ethnicities are woven together by their children who leave the
A shorter piece, “Canoe Sickness” (a condition of paralysis) takes place in the
But while the stories previously mentioned soar and certainly meet the expectations one would have of the author of the title story, which debuted separately to high acclaim, other stories in the collection fall short. One longer piece, “Kill the Rabbits,” is an ambitious working of three characters’ real and imagined issues with identity and belongingness to place that seems to either lose its way in carnival revelry or make a statement about carnival's effect on one or the other. I'm not sure. And other shorter pieces—“Where Tourists Don’t Go,” and “Street Man,” for instance—appear chopped or less fleshed out than the others though they contain high points. None of the stories is a complete disappointment.
How to Escape from a Leper Colony is either a question one would ask of a psychiatrist or a magician, or it could be a prescriptive from one or the other of them, because presumably one would have to either escape such an incurable condition by way of mind over matter control or by some form of the surreal. Tiphanie Yanique’s characters (placed as they are in their exotic worlds of exaggerated antagonists) escape their incurable conditions—toxic relationships, trauma associated with displacement, and other forms of imprisonment--by making sudden desperate moves that sometimes take on surreal overtones. So if “Leper Colony” is analogous to any current or past
(But that may be my outside-of-the-Caribbean, penchant-for-a-well-told-fantasy talking.)
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How to Escape from a Leper Colony, by Tiphanie Yanique (Graywolf Press 2010, 240 pp).