Lots of teenage girls get crushes on Hollywood stars. Ida Joseph's only problem is that she actually gets to know the star in question.
Her dad, a Lebanese immigrant to Jamaica named Eli, works as a driver, real estate agent, and general factotum to Errol Flynn, an early Hollywood leading man who adopted Jamaica as a refuge later in his life. In The Pirate's Daughter, Flynn is cast against his usual role: He's no hearty outlaw or dashing Captain Blood, but instead a depressed, middle-aged man leading a hollow existence he tries to fill with an overload of alcohol and ever-younger girls. While he's certainly no hero, this Flynn isn't strong-minded enough to qualify as a full-blooded villain. Call him the selfish accident that sets in motion Margaret Cezair-Thompson's evocative second novel. Cezair-Thompson ("The True History of Paradise") mixes Jamaican history with 1950s glamour to tell the story of two young women of mixed race trying to find their place in a rapidly changing country.
The novel draws from real life, to a point. In 1946, Flynn's boat actually was blown off-course by a hurricane, and when he landed in Jamaica to make repairs, it was love at first sight. The Tasmanian-born Flynn thought he'd found another island paradise to hide from his broken marriage and a statutory rape case making news in the United States. He bought a small island and threw lavish parties while waiting for the publicity storm to pass. Jamaicans, meanwhile, welcomed "The World's Handsomest Man," (by this time, it must be said, something of an honorary title) with open arms and gushing headlines. ("Flynn's Fans Faint....")
Here the novel creates a big "what if": What if Flynn had an illegitimate daughter with a teenage girl? It is certainly not implausible. Flynn was brought up on statutory rape charges multiple times during his life. Cezair-Thompson manages to make the heedless matinee idol both entirely selfish and yet somewhat sympathetic, and expertly renders Ida's self-destructive infatuation. And her adolescent ego is almost up to movie star standards. "Ida expected something to come from meeting Errol Flynn. She knew she was beautiful. How could she not know? All her life people had responded to her looks."
Her mother, whose father was Chinese and whose mother is descended from escaped slaves, experienced humiliation as Eli's common-law wife and tries to protect Ida. But ill health soon sidelines her, which is a shame for both Ida and the reader, since Esme is more compelling than her beautiful daughter. Ida's dad, Eli, an optimist with big plans – if only he could "raise the capital" – is drawn with remarkable sweetness. He loves Esme dearly, even though he never gives her the legitimate status she craves. And when Ida becomes pregnant and is unceremoniously dumped by Flynn, he's horrified by the actions of the "friend" he trusted, but never by his little girl. "You can still do great things, Ida. God don't finish paintin' you picture," he tells her.
Most enthralling of all, though, is Cezair-Thompson's portrait of Jamaica at a time when it was throwing off colonial ties. She weaves together history, the poetry of the language, and particularly the food. The Jamaican Board of Tourism could run ads just of the meals she describes: "They had roast pork, rice-an'-peas, plantain, callaloo [soup], and for dessert Esme's special coconut-rum pie." Mid-century Jamaica was a true melting pot with a more complex understanding of race than was common in the mainland US.
Flynn's and Ida's daughter, May, who's a dead ringer for her Australian dad, forms the heart of the novel. (Once Ida has struggled through a few years as a teenage mom and immigrant, Cezair-Thompson marries her off to an old friend of Flynn's, at which point she becomes almost wholly unknowable.) The tall, blonde May can easily pass for white, but is, and sounds, wholly Jamaican, subjecting her to confusion and prejudice from both sides. Like her mother, May falls in love with a much older man, but her life plays out very differently.
There's a deathbed confession that seems heavy-handed for the otherwise nimble plot, and Ida's switch from center-stage to cipher is unsatisfying. But overall, "The Pirate's Daughter" provides the kind of full-bodied yarn ideal for readers looking to be swept away.
• Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.