Although the fictional archipelago of Popisho in Leone Ross’s third novel is imbued with a Caribbean sensibility, it is an entirely original place. Here, clouds rain down torrents of physalises. Houses morph, stretch, bend over backwards to accommodate their inhabitants’ whims. The citizens of Popisho are just as remarkable: each possesses a special power, or “cors”. Some islanders can converse with cats. Others walk through walls. Some have prehensile tails that fluff up in response to injustice. While the despotic Governor Intiasar ostensibly presides over the state, it is the Fatidique, an esoteric council of female visionaries, who really hold the reins of power.
Ross undertakes the task of world-building this trippy realm with tremendous gusto, wit and style. Lushly chromatic landscapes reminiscent of Ben Okri’s The Famished Road teem with tangled bougainvillea, “polymorphic butterflies” and trees whose blue fruit is covered with lines of poetry. In the market, men walk about “criss-crossed with blood-splattered chickens”; the hawkers’ urgent cries weave into intoxicating melodies. When asked about the influences on his magical realism, Gabriel García Márquez cited his grandmother’s propensity for telling outlandish tales “with a brick face”. Ross similarly recounts the extravagantly bizarre – descriptions of “three buttocked” youngsters and “butchers who taught their goats to meditate” – in a breezily unfazed voice.
Into this bustling world, Ross incorporates a populous cast, ranging from graffitiing revolutionaries to dancing ghosts to sagacious sex workers and a wisecracking shock jock. She homes in on three disparate individuals whose trajectories connect over the course of one “strange day, full of surprises and moments with sharp teeth”. This focus brings solidity to an expansive plot as it meanders towards a dramatic climax. Anise has healing hands; Romanza can tell lies from truth; and Xavier is the “macaenus”, an individual with an extraordinary intuition for flavour who must prepare an elaborate meal for each of the islands’ residents. As is so often the case with writing in the magical realist mode, glittering strangeness rubs up against trauma. Carefully positioned flashbacks reveal that Anise is wrestling with the emotional strain of several miscarriages. Romanza is marginalised because of his queerness. Recovering addict Xavier struggles with guilt and grief; his wife has killed herself. Anise and Xavier’s vexed romantic past is also affectingly laid bare.
There are moments when fulsome description, a digressive tendency, overemphasis or repetition cause the narrative propulsion to snag. A truly bonkers episode in which the oddness of the eponymous day is emphasised is a case in point: seemingly apropos of nothing, the islands’ women are sent into chaos as their vulvas, or “pum-pums”, become loose and fall to the ground. The absurd conceit is at first striking and provocative; it loses its comic charge because it is returned to over and again without engaging development or expansion.
Impressively, however, Ross almost always handles the vast range of material and the multi-tonal quality of the text with an adroitness that keeps the reader involved. There is a particularly mesmerising episode in the middle of the novel when Romanza and Xavier take a boat to the mysterious Dead Islands, where the archipelago’s ostracised “Indigent” peoples live. Much to Xavier’s confusion, the anchor is dropped miles from shore. Romanza disembarks and seemingly begins to walk on water, heading for the dry land in the distance. He teaches a nervous Xavier to do the same, leading the way, showing Xavier how to make use of a sprawling platform of coral close to the surface, how to gently rest his soles on fish that will propel him on. Similarly, because of the easy confidence of the narrative voice throughout the novel – by turns raconteurish and gnomic – we too willingly follow as it wends its capricious way.
As Xavier becomes more at ease with the water, allowing gracious stingrays to transport him over the rippling waves, he remarks that “to be alive [is] a gamble, a bizarre miracle”. Ross invites us also to suspend our scepticism, to take a risk and wholly immerse ourselves in the wildness and weirdness of Popisho. This is a novel that will reward those who are able to surrender to its capaciousness and eccentricities, to revel in its oddness and delight in each surprise. But This One Sky Day provides us not merely with a welcome opportunity to enjoy a madcap, freewheeling ride through surreal and supernatural territory. It also asserts the importance of interacting with our own unpredictable world with openness, unfettered awe and wide-eyed wonder.
This One Sky Day by Leone Ross is published by Faber (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.