Curses of Cousins by Cliff Bacchus
Medical doctor and novelist Cliff Bacchus delivers a one-of-a-kind psychological thriller that tackles the taboo with literary flourish.
By Timothy Arden
New psychological thriller Curses of Cousins is a fascinating novel, mixing real-world issues with a suspenseful fictional investigation to uncover the truth behind an island nation’s misfortunes.
It is set in the fictitious Caribbean island of Sigatoo and follows a young teacher called Brooklyn as she sets out on a personal quest to end the community’s traditional practice of intermarriage between cousins.
This custom, as we discover, is the reason that many families, including her own, suffer from a range of incurable illnesses — the ‘curse’ referred to in the book’s title which plagues not only the lead character, but the rest of her immediate relations.
For Brooklyn and her twin sister, Cloelyn, this has resulted in them being born with multiple sclerosis (MS) and alopecia. Their other sisters, meanwhile, suffer respectively from sickle cell disease and Down’s syndrome, while their mother has Crohn’s disease and their father, Marfan syndrome.
With a sharp intelligence and natural curiosity into the ‘whys’ behind things, Brooklyn wants to dispel the myth of the curse, which has afflicted generations of islanders since Sigatoo’s original settlement, and let the light of reason shine down to save future generations from the same health woes.
This, however, is going to be anything but easy.
As she quickly learns, discovering the truth is only the first hurdle. The challenge will lie in getting the misogynistic, immoral island leaders to back her, and the families that have been brought up to consider intermarriage between cousins as perfectly acceptable to change their ways.
All of this she must do while being in agonising pain because of her MS, and having to live with a swift succession of tragedies, including losing her baby daughter and twin sister to cruel genetic diseases.
And if that wasn’t enough, there’s also a metaphysical battle — literally between manifestations of good and evil — raging in her mind.
In one corner is VOD, a demonic creature who taunts Brooklyn and tries to lead her away from her important social mission.
On the other side is Chutzpah, the representation of purity and all that is noble within the human spirit.
Brooklyn, however, is a fighter and is only steeled by each new calamity to push on harder with her campaign to educate the islanders about the dangers of interbreeding.
In time, she will take that crusade on to a world stage, but not before she deals with Vod once and for all, as well as immoral island leaders and a lover who is not all he seems to be.
In a compelling opening scene, we get an immediate sense of Brooklyn anger over her lot, and the daily ordeal that is her life.
“Was Sigatoo the most damned island in the world? According to the radio, a hurricane was blown far away. In bed, Brooklyn’s alopecic scalp formed folds. The fluctuating weather aggravated her condition. Is suffering from MS a must?
“’Diseases run in our ancestry.’ Brooklyn gnashed her teeth. ‘We die resembling chicken in a butchery.’”
As hopefully has been made clear, the stakes are high and this results in a fast-paced story that grips you tighter than a python.
What elevates Curses of Cousins, however, is that the author, Cliff Bacchus, a practising doctor based in the Bahamas, is, like Brooklyn, on a mission.
The unusual theme for the story — indeed, as far as I can see, it is the first time this topic has been tackled in fiction — is based on his own research and experiences with patients who have been the unfortunate victims of the practice of cousin intermarriage.
His purpose is admirable. As a doctor, he wishes to warn readers of the perils that come with the practice, wherever they are in the world (including the UK, where such relationships are, surprisingly, perfectly legal).
Cliff Bacchus, author of Curses of Cousins, is also a practicing doctor in the Bahamas.
While this is, then, a novel with an agenda, Bacchus is a talented writer and what could so easily have become little more than a dry treatise is never not entertaining.
In part, this is because of the 78-year-old’s vivid, flowing prose which crackles with originality.
It is also down to the believable characters who inhabit the island, with Brooklyn being a particularly well-written and engaging character on which to hang the story.
Her fights —against tradition, sexism, ignorance to name but three — become the reader’s, and the added metaphysical element helps us to get into her mind.
It takes a lot to create a protagonist that lives and breathes, and whom you come to care for, especially when it is a male author representing someone of the opposite gender.
This is Bacchus’s third novel, following the similarly medical-themed A Doctor and a Gentleman (2007) and Do No Harm (2011).
How he finds the time to fit in writing given that he runs two thriving pain management clinics, especially at his age, is beyond me.
I’m glad that he does, however, because Curses of Cousins is a work that is both immensely satisfying as a thriller and important for its central message.
Curses of Cousins by Cliff Bacchus is out now on Amazon priced £9.07 in paperback and £3.02 as an eBook.
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