“We live where you vacation” is a common saying among people in the Caribbean, and nothing has been a truer representation of this than Sarah Dass’ debut novel Where the Rhythm Takes You. Inspired by Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Dass’ work is fresh, romantic, and filled with musical easter eggs that carry readers through a history of Trinidad & Tobago through its sounds.
A contemporary Caribbean fiction set primarily on the small island of Tobago, Where the Rhythm Takes You follows the life of a seventeen-year-old hotelier whose short life is entirely engulfed by her work. Reyna owns and operates the Plumeria — a business started by her mother — with her father who is not as dedicated to the hotel as she is.
The young protagonist’s life feels stagnant as the people around her seem to be moving on to new adventures and making exciting new life choices when all Reyna wants to do is run the hotel and preserve the memory of her late mother. “It’s Mummy’s hotel! Or did you forget that? How could you even think of throwing it away? Does it mean nothing to you? Does Mummy mean nothing to you?” she says to her father when he entertains an offer to buy the Plumeria.
Dass’ character structure of Reyna is the typical representation of many young people who are coming of age on a small island: Bored. Reticent. Hesitant. Fearful. Angst. Reyna has never left Tobago, not even to visit the neighbouring island, Trinidad. Often, hesitance to move forward in building a life of their own can be rooted in fear; fear of the unknown. She even questions the need to make changes, to move on, “Why was everyone so dead-set on moving on? And why was I always the one getting left behind?”
The novel starts slowly and Dass takes her time exploring love, loss, and friendship in an island paradise which eventually begins to feel more like a prison to the young protagonist. Her first love returns to the island as an international music star, and it seems like Reyna may have a second chance at love if she’s able to overcome the loss of her mother and her fear of rejection and mobility. There is an innocence to the romance of the young lovers, but it’s continuously overshadowed by hurt and pain.
The friendships in this novel are warm and uncomplicating, which is the highlight of such a bright novel. A group of friends, albeit international superstars, are determined to celebrate their bond with this island trip. Dass’ reconnoitering of friendship in this novel, however, is truncated when the author turns her attention to the relationship between the protagonist and her best friend, Olivia. As a best friend, Olivia’s character remains flat and tethered on the outskirts of Reyna’s story. It’s nearly impossible to truly understand their friendship as well as Reyna’s true feelings about being left behind by Olivia. Dass missed the opportunity to develop a stronger female bond in a novel rooted in love and friendship.
Nevertheless, Where the Rhythm Takes You is a perfect opportunity to introduce outsiders to the genre of soca. Calypso and soca music is amply sprinkled throughout the novel. The title of the novel is a slight indication that there is music to be had, and plenty of it.
Dass’ inclusion of a Soca playlist tied the book together at the end. Everything from Arrow’s 1983 song “Hot, hot, hot” to Kes’ recent “Savannah Grass” encompassed the breadth and scope of the various iterations of the music genre for those unfamiliar. Though not an exhaustive list, or not even the best list, Dass’ playlist is a good start to initiate the newbies and the perfect way to set the tone for this novel.
Where the Rhythm Takes You. Sarah Dass
Publisher: Balzer + Bray
Release date: May 11, 2021
Price: Hardcover, $18.99
Page count: 352