THE LESSON explores the nature of belief, the impact of colonialism, and asks how far are we willing to go for progress? Breaking ground as one of the first science fiction novels set in the Virgin Islands, THE LESSON is not only a thought-provoking literary work, delving deeply into allegorical themes of colonialism, but also vividly draws the community of Charlotte Amalie, wherefrom the author hails.
An alien ship rests over Water Island. For five years the people of the U.S. Virgin Islands have lived with the Ynaa, a race of super-advanced aliens on a research mission they will not fully disclose. They are benevolent in many ways but meet any act of aggression with disproportional wrath. This has led to a strained relationship between the Ynaa and the local Virgin Islanders and a peace that cannot last. A year after the death of a young boy at the hands of an Ynaa, three families find themselves at the center of the inevitable conflict, witness and victim to events that will touch everyone and teach a terrible lesson.
Even in the blurb, this book warns you that this is a commentary on colonialism. And the narrative doesn’t shy away from the topic. But what I most loved about the theme of colonialism in the narrative is that it isn’t just explored through the alien invasion. Sure, after the Ynna arrive, the reader sees the common tropes of colonialism in the Ynna’s haughty mannerisms and the locals reaction to their invaders or neighbors (depending on which Islander you ask). But what gets me about this book is Mera’s take on colonialism.
And watch out below, because I can’t talk about my favorite part of the novel without some heavy spoilers. So read at your own risk.
Mera arrives earlier than the other Ynna, conducting her research in the shadows while pretending to live as a slave on the plantation. She witnesses colonialism-imposed slavery firsthand, interacting with her Dutch overseer and other slaves, especially ones who’d been in positions of power before their capture and subsequent domination. Mera lives through days in the fields, through slave rebellions, and through the subjugation of that rebellion. She feels the brunt of colonialism and then, in a clever twist, she becomes one of the people delivering that brunt to the people of St. Thomas.
This allows her to form her own Lesson, one different from what the rest of the Ynna believe when they arrive centuries later. I loved watching her character on both sides of that interaction: both as the oppressed and the oppressor. It gives her Lesson weight, making it more impactful to the reader.
The humans, likewise, all have their role to play when it comes to their reaction to the invading/arriving Ynna. Some (most, actually) view their arrival as hostile, the Ynna customs barbaric and cruel, while scant others welcome the Ynna and yearn for the opportunity to connect, learn, and grow. The Ynna, for their part, don’t come as beneficial or tyrannical forces. Instead, they come to finish their research, sticking to the island as they do so, and leaving the rest of the world alone. With such vague motives, the rest of the world isn’t sure how to respond. And thus, nothing happens. And for five years, the island stagnates, the rising tension between the Ynna simmering until it reaches a boil.
The book is a remarkable exploration of colonialism, from both sides. I loved the part where the author recounts previous human colonialism, with tribes conquering and displacing other tribes. Even with human-on-human subjugation, the feelings triggered are the same ones stirred by the Ynna. Which goes to show, in my opinion, that it doesn’t so much matter where the oppressor is coming from: all that matters is the power displacement. That, I believe, is what Turnbull is trying to show, using speculative science fiction as his vehicle to do it.
For the most part, this book lacks the explosions and adrenaline most people would come to associate an alien arrival narrative with. Instead of the action-packed blockbuster, Turnbull uses a common alien trope to instead explore and evaluate a very human reaction to oppression and colonialism. It’s a literary novel, to be sure, meant to be examined with an open mind and a close eye. Definitely worth the read if you’re at all interested in exploring humanity. 4.5 out of 5 stars.