The Star Side of Bird Hill, Naomi Jackson’s debut novel, is a beautifully written story that concerns itself primarily with women and their power. It is the story of two sisters, Dionne, 16 and Phaedra, 10, who are sent from New York City to Barbados, to live with their grandmother Hyacinth.
The reason for the girl’s trip is that their mother, Avril, has become too mentally ill to care for them. Under Hyacinth’s roof, the girls must cope with their mother’s absence, the mess their old life in New York City has become and their separate journeys toward womanhood. The girls must also learn the ways of the Hill women – the close-knit community to which they now belong.
Jackson weaves touches of magic throughout the story, especially when she writes about the all-knowing, all-seeing Hyacinth.
“I wanted to know if it’s true what people say about your family. If it’s true that you can’t die,” an island boy who has befriended Phaedra tells her.
Hyacinth is the community’s midwife and medicine woman – it’s a job the women in her family have done for generations. Because of this, she has an otherworldly knowledge about the ways of both people and nature. It is Hyacinth who senses when her older granddaughter has lost her virginity and concocts a tea to make sure the girl is not burdened with an unwanted pregnancy. And when an uninvited guest appears outside Hyacinth’s door, Phaedra wonders if Hyacinth is the one responsible for the woman’s high heels being sucked into the mud or for the gust of wind that blows the woman’s dress up.
There are men in the tale, but they are at the sidelines. There is the girls’ grandfather, who created a lifelong rift between himself and his only daughter by throwing out a special treasure of hers. There are two Bird Hill boys who make fast connections with the Phaedra and Dionne, while the girls of the community are still figuring them out. And there is the girls’ handsome, dashing and absentee father – who the girls must figure out for themselves.
The story is at its best, though, when it’s concerned with the women. Via Hyacinth and the lessons she teaches her granddaughters, Jackson hits at the reality of life in the world as a black women.
“For Hyacinth the surprise was…that she and Zelma had thrived for so long in a world that was a best indifferent to their survival,” Jackson writes.
In the end, however, Jackson leaves readers with a message of hope and self-reliance.
“The same way that your father’s people’s blood run through your veins, you have a strong line of women behind you,” Hyacinth tells Dionne. “If they could still stand up after what they did and what had been done to them, you have more than enough legs to stand up on now.”