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Review: The Jumbee by Pamela Keyes

Summary: The life of Esti Legard changes drastically when her father, a world-renowned stage actor, dies of cancer. Looking for a new life, she and her hippie mother move to Cariba for her senior year of high school. Facing a prima donna vying for the attention of talent scouts, Esti gets involved in a stage production of Romeo and Juliet. A phantom voice from the darkened stage begins coaching Esti, and as a murder and other disturbing events begin to occur, Esti wonders if she can trust this “jumbee” (West Indian word for ghost). Things get even more complicated when her childhood-friend-turned-bad-boy Rafe comes into the picture, and it’s unclear whether this drama will end in tragedy…

Review:  Considering what I’ve been involved in recently, this book was quite a serendipitous find for me. Over the summer I saw The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway for the first time, went to see my university’s…experimental production of Romeo and Juliet, and heard a director/actor who worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company speak in my theatre analysis class. After that, it was difficult not to imagine him as Esti’s charismatic British father!

All this being said, I think this book is a lot more enjoyable for people who love and are familiar with The Phantom of the Opera (and can at least tolerate Romeo and Juliet). The plot and characters loosely follow the plot of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, but I became so engrossed in the story that pages would fly by before I realized “Oh! This character is Madame Giry” or “This is the Masquerade scene!” Finding the parallels between the musical and this book were a large part of the fun. Some of the connections were subtle (Esti’s real name) and some were a bit…much. For instance: “She saw endless volumes of Shakespeare, and classic literature as timeless as Straparalo and Leroux.” Gaston Leroux is of course the author of the original novel The Phantom of the Opera. But is this world like BBC’s modern-day series Sherlock, where the Arthur Conan Doyle stories never existed?  Does Leroux’s Phantom actually exist in the world but the characters don’t notice all the parallels? The author is clearly winking at the reader, but it’s more confusing than clever.

The West Indian setting and culture make for a very unique retelling of the story, and though the backstory of the “ghost” is slightly hard to follow on the first read, it’s definitely original. The problem with a modern version of Phantom is that the reason for the “haunting” requires a certain suspension of disbelief, but I felt largely willing to cooperate with this. Those who find Christine’s actions frustrating at points of the musical will likely get frustrated at Esti as well, but overall she is a likeable heroine, and her complex relationship with her famous father rings true. Her “phantom” is appropriately mysterious, pitiable and charming by turns, and the transformation of occasionally-foppish Raoul into an edgier, bad-boy character is a great spin on the original.

As always, I do have a few nits to pick. I wasn’t overly fond of the way that Ms. Keyes wrote dialogue. The high school students’ “teen-speak” felt forced. Although the “jumbee” and Esti are “theatre people” and like to quote Shakespeare, their conversations usually seemed strangely stilted, dramatic and formal.

Another thing – though I’m a sworn hater of love triangles, the romantic dynamics of Phantom have always been one of the most interesting aspects of the story to me. Keyes handles this pretty well, but through much of the book Esti seems obsessed with getting a kiss from one guy or the other. She switches back and forth so much, it seems as though either one would do for her – she just needs to be kissed. Even for a hormonal teenage girl, it was too much at times.

This is completely random, but the novel opens with the line “Paul is dead!” I immediately assumed that this was meant to be a humorous reference to the Beatles urban legend, but no, a character named Paul has actually just died tragically. I don’t know if the author meant to connect to the Beatles intentionally or not. Perhaps my love of that band is distorting my perceptions…

In short: Perfect for fans (phans?) of The Phantom of the Opera or just theatre in general, The Jumbee is an enjoyable, romantic read that had me turning pages at a rapid pace.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

Something similar: Of course, the original novel The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux is a must read. It’s a strange and haunting book, but it’s a classic. My Phantom: The Memoir of Christine Daae by Anstance Tamplin is a retelling of the novel that changes a whole lot but is a great take on the story. For Shakespeare fans, check out the trilogy beginning with Wondrous Strange by Lesley Livingston.

Cover & Title: The title makes sense with the context of the novel, but I’m guessing that most Americans (myself included) would have no idea what a “jumbee” is. The mask, piercing blue eyes, and flowers are all tied into the story, but the cover feels a bit jumbled to me (no pun intended). Something simpler without so many visual elements would have been more aesthetically pleasing.

Where I got the book: Shelves of the local library.

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3 comments on “Review: The Jumbee by Pamela Keyes

  1. cabraseniorlibrary
    March 21, 2012

    Very nice looking book site. Thanks for visiting ours.

  2. backtothebookshelf
    March 21, 2012

    Thank you! I wish my school library had a blog when I was there – lots of good information!

  3. Pingback: Top 10 of ’12: Best Books I’ve Read This Year « Back to the Bookshelf!

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