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Unburnable, a novel published in 2006 by HarperCollins/Amistad, was penned by Caribbean writer Marie-Elena John (born in Antiguamarker), who spent a career as an Africa Development specialist in New Yorkmarker and Washington, D.C.marker prior to turning to writing. Unburnable is her debut novel. It is at once historical fiction, murder mystery, neo-slave narrative, and multigenerational saga.

Plot introduction

Covering the African Diaspora, and offering a reinterpretation of Black history, the narrative of family, betrayal, vengeance, and murder, follows the fictional character Lillian Baptiste as she is willed back to her island home of Dominicamarker from Washington, D.C. to finally settle her past. Haunted by scandal and secrets, Lillian Baptiste fled Dominica when she was fourteen after discovering she was the daughter of Iris, the half-crazy woman whose life was told of in chanté mas songs sung during Carnival: songs about a village on a mountaintop littered with secrets, masks that supposedly fly and wreak havoc, and a man who suddenly and mysteriously dropped dead. After twenty years away, Lillian returns to her island of birth to face the demons of her past.

Allusions to history, geography and science

Set in both contemporary Washington, D.C. and Dominica, and switching back and forth between contemporary and historical stories, Unburnable weaves together the Black experience with Caribbean culture and history. Among the themes in the novel are the Caribs (the Kalinago), the Maroons, the history of Carnival and masquerade, the practice of Obeah, the fusion of African religions and Catholicism, resistance to slavery, and post-colonial issues.

Book reviews

The novel has received favourable book reviews in the United States and in the Caribbean. Essence Magazine's book editor, Patrick Bass, selected Unburnable as one of three "Patrick's Pick's", commenting that "Unburnable marks the arrival of a major new voice in fiction."In Black Issues Book Review, Denise M. Doig called the novel's author "superb". Dalia King of The Trinidad Guardian in her later review of the novel commented, "John weaves the weighty issues of race, sex and politics into the fabric of a historical Dominica without allowing the essential story of Unburnable — that of a woman searching for her past so that she may find herself — to get lost in the novel’s own self-importance".

Awards and nominations

Unburnable was named Best Debut Novel of 2006 by Black Issues Book Review.



Release details

  • 2006, USA, Amistad / HarperCollins (ISBN 0060837578), Pub date 11 April 2006, hardback (First edition)
  • 2007, USA, Amistad / HarperCollins (ISBN 0060837586), Pub date 1 May 2006, paperback (forthcoming)

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