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Sweetness in the Skin: Cruelty and kindness

Sweetness in the Skin may seem like a gentle coming of age story, but it is all the more compelling for its darker side.

Photo: IMAGO / Pond 5 Images

HarperCollins seems eager to market this – a debut by The Reader regular Ishi Robinson – as frothy, summery fun: the jacket copy tells us the novel is set in 1990s Jamaica and follows Pumkin Patterson, a high school student and baker who dreams of moving to Paris. Pumkin needs to raise money for the admission test to a French lycée, so she starts selling her creations (bread pudding! coconut drops! tamarind balls!) to her classmates.

She insists that kindness is always possible

So far, so gentle coming-of-age fantasy; she even makes it to France. But Robinson adds a profound, often painful reckoning with the colourism, classism and violence that keep Pumkin from accomplishing her dreams – or even knowing what they are.

Those systemic forces help explain the cruelties visited by (and on) Pumkin’s mother, grandmother and aunt, but Robinson never excuses them. Instead, she insists that kindness is always possible. Her novel is all the better for its dark side, but don’t bring it to the lake unless you don’t mind shedding a tear.