Can you bear the ugly side of paradise?

Here Comes the Sun. Nicole Dennis-Benn. Liveright. 336 pages. $26.95.
Here Comes the Sun. Nicole Dennis-Benn. Liveright. 336 pages. $26.95.

Nicole Dennis-Benn’s striking first novel bears a vivid cover and a jaunty title, but its subject matter is anything but superficial. Set in Jamaica in 1994, during a crippling drought and the creeping encroachment of high-end hotels along the shores of Montego Bay, Here Comes the Sun takes a hard look at difficult subjects — class, poverty, identity, racism, homophobia, colorism.

Dennis-Benn, who grew up in Jamaica and now lives in Brooklyn, uses this landscape — not the sunny image on a tourism poster but a rockier terrain of need and want, sacrifice and betrayal — to create a haunting portrait of an exploited community on the verge of irrevocable change. We view this precipice through the eyes of four women who understand the truth about the sun, sky and beaches. “This is no paradise,” one says bitterly. “At least, not for us.”

The speaker is Margot, who holds a coveted position at a modern, high-end hotel so removed from the island’s realities that “tourists now have to leave the lobby and drive half a mile to be reminded where they are.”

Margot has a desk job and dreams of one day being promoted to manager, but her real work takes place in the beds of the tourists. “She doesn’t see it as demeaning. She sees it as merely satisfying the curiosity of foreigners; foreigners who pay her good money to be their personal tour guide on the island of her body.”

Her reason for doing what she does is her teenage sister Thandi, who attends a private Catholic school. Margot pays the tuition, determined that Thandi, an excellent student, will not walk down the path she herself has taken. If Thandi passes her exams, she can attend university and become a doctor. At least that’s the plan of their mother, Delores, who sells trinkets to tourists in the marketplace and observes her daughters with a wary — and sometimes jealous — eye.

Thandi, who wants to be an artist, bears a heavy burden. “It’s you who’ll get us outta dis place,” her mother and sister tell her, loading her down with their own desires. Meanwhile, Thandi is consumed with her own painful secret: She’s covering herself in a cream that she prays will neutralize her secret shame: her dark skin. Weary of rejection by cruel light-skinned classmates, Thandi fantasizes, as teenagers do, about popularity and success and handsome boys. Being smart, she thinks, is not enough.

“Thandi has seen the effects of the crème on the women who use it, the lightness coming into their skin, and the darkness receding like a sinister shadow around their hairline. ... All over River Bank, people know about Miss Ruby and her new business. Because of her, women and girls who were nothing before have become something, their newly lightened faces rendering them less invisible and more beautiful. ...”

Thandi knows Margot will disapprove of this hopeless way of thinking, but Margot doesn’t notice. She’s too preoccupied with her own secret: her late night visits to another woman’s home. Rumors have made Verdene an outcast in their small community — a misfit, a witch, a sodomite, a clear and present danger — but Margot is drawn to her nonetheless.

Dennis-Benn fleshes out these characters confidently, shaping them as complicated and often contradictory. They are fascinating, maddening, brave, unforgettable. Some speak in a patois that lends a poetic air to the novel; others use a more traditional English that marks them as outsiders.

Either way, Dennis-Benn doesn’t judge them, not Margot when she continues the cycle of exploitation that entrapped her, not even Delores, whose betrayal of Margot when she was a child is almost unthinkable. But Delores has reasons for her choices: a childhood of poverty; a teenage pregnancy; men who impregnated her, then fled; an ignorant fear of what her daughter might turn out to be; a desperate need to put food on the table. Casting Delores as a monster would be easy, but when Dennis-Benn lays out her past, the author puts forth a subtle demand that we consider how any of us would fare in her shoes.

Also remarkable is Here Comes the Sun’s unflinching view of the economics of morality. Quite simply, these women do what they feel they must to survive in a culture that values them less for being female, for being dark-skinned or for their sexuality. “What will set yuh free is money,” Delores tells Thandi, imploring her daughter to be practical. “’Membah dis, nobody love a black girl.” Thandi and Margot come to disregard the hollow logic of this assessment eventually but only at a price.

Here Comes the Sun arrives in the season of the beach read, but with eloquent prose and unsentimental clarity, Dennis-Benn offers an excellent reason to look beyond the surface beauty of paradise. This novel is as bracing as a cold shower on a hot day, a reminder that sometimes we need to see things as they are, not as we wish they would be.

Connie Ogle is the Miami Herald’s book editor.