Rachel Reviews… 'Bittersweet Memories of Last Spring' by Dr Ardain Isma
Note: Out of respect to readers who have not yet had the chance to delve into this book, I have kept this review spoiler-free. All details on character and plot mentioned in this review do not go beyond what a reader will already know from the blurb on the back of the book.
I recently had the pleasure of reading ‘Bittersweet Memories of Last Spring’ by Dr Ardain Isma. I met Dr Ardain when he interviewed me for his show ‘Conversations’ (click here for the link to the interview on YouTube- he’s well worth following!). He struck me immediately as a very intelligent man who is very passionate about his subject. It came as no surprise to me, then, that his books are thoughtful and full of references to the rich and fascinating history of the Caribbean, in particular Haiti where he is from. You all know how much I love learning about history, and Dr Ardain is certainly the man to learn from!
Click here to take a look at this gentleman’s impressive credentials…
You can probably see why I was quite excited to read this book. It’s not every day you get a chance to learn from a real expert, and what better way is there to learn than through stories?
About the Book
‘Bittersweet Memories of Last Spring’ is a coming of age novel following 17-year-old Yrvin Lacroix as he navigates the choppy waters of growing up. Yrvin has to overcome the challenges of life as a young refugee, recently smuggled on a boat from Haiti to Miami, including language barriers, cultural clashes and homesickness for the relatives and friends he has left behind. On top of this, poverty threatens to deprive him of the education he so desperately needs, and matters of the heart weigh heavily on him as he gets caught up in an accidental love triangle between his sweetheart from back home and a new girl he falls in love with at school.
In 1980, 17-year-old Yrvin Lacroix is in a sailboat from Haiti bound for Miami, Florida in search of a better life. He leaves behind his beloved mother, his siblings, and Régine- his childhood sweetheart to whom he has made a promise to return.
In Miami, despite his precarious situation as a refugee, Yrvin joins Haitian exiles in the fight against the Duvalier dictatorship in Haiti as well as the struggle for refugee rights. He believes a win against the odds will help him shape the course of his life.
As time passes, Yrvin's love and passion for Régine begins to fade. Attending school is his main objective. On a rainy December day, he meets Michaela, a mixed-race girl of Dominican origin and fellow student at his school. They fall in love. But that love suffers a major setback when Yrvin learns of Régine's presence in Miami. Yrvin must now face a scorned Régine while staying focused in school and preserving his relationship with Michaela. Will he succeed?
Bittersweet Memories of Last Spring is an impressive novel of faith, love, and identity-the first instalment of a sequel penned by critically-acclaimed author Ardain Isma.
Dr Isma’s writing style intrigued me from the start. It’s very different from my own, which is in no way a criticism. As an author, I believe strongly in reading a range of writing styles; it’s how we learn and develop ourselves as writers. There’s no right or wrong way, and every reader has their own preferences.
The style of this novel is very descriptive with lots of poetic language and colourful metaphors. The plot itself is fairly simple; all first person past tense, from Yrvin’s point of view, which means that despite the literary style it is not difficult to follow. The two compliment each other nicely.
I really liked the poetic way that the Haitian characters spoke. Their language is so much more emotive than we’re used to hearing in British English; their letters to one another read like works of art. I’m not usually one to highlight books, but I couldn’t help picking out the phrase ‘You can strike water more than a million times, it will never spill blood, even with a machete’. Yrvin acknowledges this as a Creole saying, and it’s just an example of one of the charming cultural metaphors used in abundance throughout the books.
I feel that I should also give an honourable mention to whoever was responsible for the editing. This is the first book I’ve read in a long time which didn’t have a single typo, repeated or missing word, or any other mistake I could pick up on. It’s not that I go looking deliberately for these things, but as an editor, my neurodivergent brain usually sniffs them out like a bloodhound whether I like it or not! Kudos to Dr Ardain and his editor for this- it read like a very polished work, and a lot of time and effort must have gone into creating this level of perfection.
The whole novel is narrated from the first-person perspective of Yrvin, a 17-year-old immigrant from Haiti who is trying to create a new life in Miami. The readers sees everything that happens through Yrvin’s young eyes, feeling what he feels as he struggles with finding work, balancing his school life and suffering the trials of young love.
I think there is an unfortunate trend in a lot of readers today to expect all main characters to be paragons of morality. I’ve seen books rated poorly just because the reader didn’t approve of the main character’s decisions. This is unfair; nobody is perfect in real life, and the characters we read about wouldn’t feel realistic if they didn’t have faults and make mistakes like the rest of us. Yrvin may be a frustrating main character at times, as we see him make some poor decisions which hurt other people, but it’s important to remember that he is a hormonal teenage boy and he’s had to leave everything he loved behind and start his life all over again. Of course he’s not going to handle everything perfectly. Nor should he. The author isn’t trying to hold him up as a beacon of morality or a romantic hero. It wouldn’t be reflective of real life. Who’s ever met a perfect teenager? I certainly haven’t!
Yrvin’s main character flaw is common to a lot of teenagers; he tends to let his emotions overrule his brain, which leads him into a multitude of sticky situations especially with girls. In most of these situations, Yrvin’s bad choices are fundamentally responsible for what has happened, yet he still has a hypocritical tendency to blame the girls for the emotional distress each situation causes him. While I found this frustrating at times, it was important to remember that Yrvin is a teenager in ‘the spring of his life’ as the title reflects. He is inexperienced and often naive, making mistakes that an older and wiser man would not, and it is unsurprising that so many of his love interests get upset with him over his behaviour. However, the point is that he grows and learns from his mistakes, and by the end of the novel has progressed to taking responsibility for the consequences of his actions. Is that not what a coming-of-age novel is supposed to be all about?
Just because Yrvin makes some poor decisions, it doesn’t stop him from being a likeable character. His devotion to his family is very endearing, as is his emotional openness with both family members and friends. Yrvin’s relationship with his sister Nana is especially wholesome, and every interaction between them is affectionate and inspiring. I think Nana is my favourite character. I really felt for her as she did everything she could to help Yrvin and the rest of her family, standing in as a maternal figure for him in the absence of their mother while dealing with her own heartaches. What a great character with a good amount of emotional depth.
Although other girls come and go in the novel, Yrvin’s two main love interests are Régine (the love he left behind in Haiti) and Michaela whom he meets at school. More than just plot devices to create conflict for Yrvin’s angsty teenage heart, these characters embody how torn he feels between his nostalgic love and homesickness for Haiti (Régine) and his hopes and desires for his new future in America (Michaela). His guilt over leaving Régine and moving on to start a new life with Michaela is mirrored in how guilty he feels over leaving behind a troubled Haiti and adapting to his new life in America. It’s a clever and poignant way of showing how his character grows and develops, learning to accept that he cannot have it both ways, and that he must make painful sacrifices if he wishes to move forward with his life.
I don’t think I’ve ever said this about a book before, but I think the setting was my absolute favourite thing about this novel. From the very first page, it painted a vivid picture with Yrvin feeling trapped and terrified as he hides on a sailing boat bound for Miami. The descriptive style of the writing helped the reader to picture the scene well, and the story was full of wonderful depictions of Caribbean music, culture and food. The parties and celebrations felt joyous, and I loved how the author portrayed the vibrant cocktail of cultures that blended (and sometimes clashed) in Miami. Haitian, Dominican, Cuban, Jamaican and more combine in the cultural mixing pot that is Miami to create a wonderfully rich tapestry. By the time I finished the book, I felt like I’d been there and celebrated it all with them.
There was also lots of interesting history in this book which made it stand out as a particularly informative read. Yrvin himself has a strong interest in history and politics, which makes it feel natural that he would refer back to Haiti’s past and the country’s troubles and political unrest. This was a great element of the book- of course, I’m biased as my own books combine real-life historical revolution and other events with the characters’ personal stories, so it’s inevitable that I’m going to love other books that do the same. I felt that it added a poignant depth to the story and characters; even when Yrvin is struggling with very personal teenage issues, there’s always a bigger picture rumbling in the background which brings all of the characters together and reminds the reader that people really did live through these events. I felt like I’d learned a lot from reading it, and I love stories that have that effect on me.
This was a really interesting book with a vibrant background of cultural and historical detail from an author who really knows what he’s talking about. A poignant story about refugees learning to adapt to a new life in America. I’d highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in Caribbean history and culture, especially if they’re looking for the added bonus of teen romance and characters overcoming adversity.
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Disclaimer: Please note that I never accept money or any other type of payment in exchange for reviews, and always buy the books myself unless stated otherwise. I never publicly post any reviews for books I’ve rated lower than 4*, as not every book is for everyone and I believe it’s unfair to damage a hardworking author’s reputation over something that comes down to personal preference. This way, although my ratings may appear to average out high, you know that they always reflect my honest opinion.