A review of What Start a Bad Mornin’ by Carol Mitchell

Reviewed by Leslie Friedman

What Start a Bad Mornin’
by Carol Mitchell
Central Avenue Publishing, An Imprint of Central Avenue Marketing
Sept 2023, Hardcover, 272 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1771683548

This is a mystery novel. There are layers of mysteries in the life of Amaya Lin.She is a woman from Jamaica who attended university in Trinidad and then moved to the Washington, D.C. area with her fiancé, mother-in-law-to-be, and then a baby. It is innovative and exciting, and I refuse to give away any of its secrets.

    As a serial watcher of TV detective stories and the reader of any mystery I can pick up (unless it is gruesome), I am familiar with this interchange: 

“What are we looking for?” asks the partner.

“I don’t know,” answers the detective.

This is the anxiety producing situation in Amaya’s life. She is alone as she enters the locked room of her past. She does not have a side-kick. She must pick up objects and experiences in order to find out what she is looking for.  

Is the strange woman who speaks to her on a parking lot truly related to Amaya, or is she attempting a con, or is Amaya imagining the encounter? The woman says she is Amaya’s sister, but she is too young to be her sister. And yet, something about her gives Amaya a strange reaction. Amaya blacks out while driving. She cannot remember what happened. How did she pull her car over off the road without crashing? 

What Start a Bad Mornin’ is about Amaya Lin and also about the lives of immigrants from a different culture. It was the first novel I have read about individuals from the Caribbean though I have known Jamaicans and Haitians. Their ancestors were brought as slaves to the “new world” far back in the 17th century. Some families arrived before the Mayflower and some later, but they easily may have occupied the “new world” earlier than most Europeans. Educated, fully employed, and speaking English, the families central to this book are aware they are not “ordinary” – meaning white professionals of the various levels of middle-class. 

Amaya’s husband is of both Chinese and Caribbean ancestry. Brian, Amaya’s husband, and she were able to immigrate to the US because his mother won the visa lottery. Nothing in their families is simple. Brian works hard to become a lawyer. While taking her infant son to a park, a stroke of luck introduces Amaya to Jamela, another woman from the islands. Her husband Geoffrey, also from Jamaica, is a lawyer. The four of them become close friends; Brian and Geoffrey form a law firm.

Although through most of the book Amaya examines herself, criticizes her actions, cannot remember much of her past, her outer life is well organized and successful. She also works in the law firm and plays a significant role in winning a big contract with a Swedish corporation. The reader sees more of Amaya than Amaya sees herself.. 

There are other times when she blacks out or becomes disoriented. She torments herself about family secrets, and what she can remember is not reliable. Eventually, she seeks help from a doctor who had helped her son, Taiwo. The author reveals pieces of Amaya’s life very slowly and only when a situation engulfs Amaya. For example, the fact that her son is on the autism spectrum comes out because she decides to consult Dr. Hinds, also originally from the Caribbean, who had successfully treated Taiwo. Despite the successful treatments given to both mother and son, each one has a deep mystery. 

Amaya has two close friends, Lisa and Jamela, with whom she will have lunch or see a movie, but she takes her time before she will explain what is going on in her life that makes her preoccupied or anxious. In fact, though she is not part of the “ordinary” public in her appearance or origins, her family challenges and personal doubts could be identical to the middling middle class white or African-American woman with a husband, a son, and a beloved elder. Amaya’s Aunt Marjorie, is suffering from dementia; Amaya is her caregiver as well as looking after her son and husband. Keeping the household going is another category of life in which, despite her self-criticism, the reader can observe Amaya’s gifts of empathy and orderliness. 

Mitchell writes with specific descriptions of a room or a person’s clothing and hair. She uses major and minor details to create the appearance of the scene in which action takes place. A stage director would have no trouble setting a stage with the book’s particular plant in a special kind of pot, the colors of clothing, the furniture of a room and how it is placed. Her careful depiction of scenes inside a house, on the highway, on a parking lot, or in an office adds to the story’s tension. 

Her descriptions and metaphors accentuate visual perceptions in a wonderful way. The unknown woman on the parking lot wore gold hoop: “earrings Caribbean grandmothers passed down to their granddaughters on whom they could pour the love and indulgence they had not shown their daughters.”  She had “full cheeks that filled out her oval-shaped face, and skin as smooth and unblemished as the shells of the brown eggs I sought out at the grocery.” (both on p5). Amaya rediscovers a memory of her mother, 

From the door, I could see a rock dove on her windowsill. Most of its body was a pale color, closer to a dirty white than gray, but its neck, which it held upright in a proud display, was covered in iridescent green and pink feathers. It cocked its head, turning one orange eye towards my mother as if trying to decide what to make of the woman inside, how to interpret her motionlessness in the face of his obvious beauty. It hopped closer along the sill, then raised its wings and lofted itself out of sight. My mother never moved. (222)

This reader became anxious with Amaya because the scenes’ physical arrangement also built suspense. I love mysteries, but suspense drives me wild.  What Start a Bad Mornin’ had me in its suspenseful clutches: “What is she going to do NOW?”  “No, don’t tell him!” From the first pages, the author gives the reader a clear vision of where she is while holding back some reasons and whys at the same time because Amaya also cannot get in touch with the truth of her past. The answers are tantalizing to her; she feels something is there, but her answers tease her with half-truths. 

The author enlarges the story’s scope through Time, and Time rules Amaya’s life. Her ability to learn what is happening to her in her present time is part of the long ago and fairly recent past. Mitchell identifies the year and place in which her chapters take place. The present events are in 2003, but some of the action is in 1983. The 1983 actions lead to significant events in 1980 and 1982. Time long ago is still part of the present. It is curled up inside of today. 

Time and space bundle together. In the book’s earliest time, 1979, Amaya is young in Black River, Jamaica. She traveled to Trinidad, she arrived in Washington, D.C., and then in Fairfax, Virginia. The actions in these different places are presented as the present. Conversations are in the now, even though the date is earlier than another now. Readers circle backward and forward, learning more about a Caribbean family, political upheaval, and crime in Jamaican towns. These are places I only hear about if there is an earthquake or revolution. How much Jamaican history is known or taught? The book’s characters show the readers what normal life is like in this place during economic crises or the overturn of political leaders. Ms Mitchell can take the lives of her characters forward, but to solve the mystery of Amaya’s past, Amaya must go into the past. That is why she recounts what happened as though it is happening. Again. Time is the biggest mystery. The stories are about Amaya Lin in particular, but Time and memory include everything. Even when you think you have forgotten, that lost time is still alive in you. I have already read it twice.