This is a love story between young people that isn’t fixated on Romeo and Juliet-esque raging hormones, instead infusing a passion for melodies, lyrics and true connections between two teens deep in the first bloom of self-discovery: Joanne C. Hillhouse’s Musical Youth.
Second place winner of the inaugural CODE Burt Award for Caribbean Literature, this budding romance wins points for not layering its developments waist-deep in uncontrollable pheromones and cloying body spray. While not negating the effects of blossoming attraction, Musical Youth sets its conductor’s baton higher — focusing on true musicianship and motivation in the lives of its young protagonists: shy, self-conscious Zahara and street-smart yet similarly introspective Shaka.
The bonds that develop between this fledgling duo are also rooted in the traditional concerns of their Antiguan society. Stern grandmothers and admonishing grandfathers are present here, as are the persistent skin-colour biases which shape one troubling arm of our regional interactions. This novel’s strength proclaims itself in never shying away from the truth about our problems, while simultaneously celebrating the hard-won historical joys of our freedom — as citizens and music makers alike.
Zahara and Shaka’s affinity is chorded and constructed in the sweet rhythms of soca, of soul, rhythm & blues and Bob Marley’s reggae itself. Hillhouse writes some of her most luminous passages in describing the musical nature of the young virtuosos’ ardour:
“She thought he was magnificent, and it had nothing to do with his colour. It was his eyes that always seemed to have a smile in them and the way his features were arranged in a uniquely impish way so that he always seemed like he was pulling her leg. It was the way he moved his long, lean body, as if to the beat of an internal rhythm.”
Brimful with resonant notes on first-time courtships; adolescent discovery; tightly-knit friendships and the rewards of discipline, Musical Youth deserves multiple encores — this is one young adult pick you’ll want to savour several times over.
We recommend it for: teen readers seeking an antidote to Stephenie Meyer and the Twilight movement; fans of Laurie Halse Anderson’s powerful YA catalogue; adults who appreciate colourful, credible storytelling that lilts with sonic appreciation.