As the novel opens, we learn that Antoinette lives with her mother, Annette, and her brother, Pierre, on their dilapidated estate, Coulibri, outside Spanish Town, Jamaica. Antoinette's father, Mr. Cosway, passed away some time before. The local whites look down on them because Annette is from Martinique, a French colony. We also learn that, due to the recent passage of the Emancipation Act, their plantation, like many of the other plantations on the island, has fallen into disrepair because they can't, sniff, exploit slave labor anymore (for more historical context, see "Setting").
Mr. Luttrell, a neighboring plantation owner who has also fallen on hard times, is so depressed that he shoots his dog and drowns himself in the ocean.
Despite their poverty, Annette still enjoys getting dressed up and parading around on her horse even though she is mocked everywhere she rides. Antoinette finds her mother's horse – it has been poisoned. Annette accuses Godfrey, their servant, of knowing who poisoned the horse. Godfrey mumbles some stuff about the "devil prince" (I.1.1.10).
A dead dog, a dead man, a dead horse…the body count in this novel is already getting pretty impressive.
Pierre has a mysterious disorder that impairs his ability to speak and to walk. Annette calls in a doctor. Although we're not told what he says, Annette is devastated. She avoids going out, and she barely talks to Antoinette. She spends much of her time wandering around the house talking to herself.
Understandably freaked out by her mother's behavior, Antoinette hangs out with Christophine, who sings her melancholy songs in patois (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/patois). Antoinette doesn't understand all the words, but she does know that the songs are all about people being abandoned by their loved ones. (That's a pretty obvious piece of foreshadowing. In fact, everything that happens in Part I is a pretty obvious piece of foreshadowing…)
Antoinette is chased by a girl who taunts her and calls her a "white cockroach," a derogatory term for white Creoles (see our discussion of "Race" in "Character Clues").
Christophine discovers that the girl is Tia, the daughter of Christophine's friend Maillotte. Tia and Antoinette become friends.
One morning, Antoinette drops some pennies that Christophine had given her. Tia bets Antoinette three pennies that Antoinette can't turn a somersault under water. Antoinette bets her all the pennies that she can.
Antoinette turns one somersault underwater, starts to turn another one but can't complete it. Tia takes the money because she doesn't think Antoinette did a good somersault.
Things get nasty as Antoinette calls Tia a "cheating nigger"; Tia fires right back and taunts Antoinette for being a "white nigger" (I.1.3.12-3).
When Antoinette's back is turned, Tia disappears with Antoinette's dress. Antoinette puts on Tia's dress and heads home.
When Antoinette arrives, she notices that two young women and a gentleman, all of whom are elegantly dressed, are visiting her mother. They laugh at her dress, and she runs away. Later, Christophine explains to Antoinette that these visitors are Luttrell's relatives, come to take over his plantation.
When Antoinette goes to bed, she dreams that she is walking in a forest. Someone who hates her is stalking her. As she hears the stranger's footsteps coming closer, she fights and screams, but she's paralyzed.
She wakes up crying. Her mother looks in on her, chides her for waking up her brother, and goes to check on Pierre.
Antoinette thinks that Annette may have sold her last ring to buy them both new dresses. All of a sudden, Annette has become a social butterfly, spending every day with the Luttrells. For Antoinette, the house feels empty without her mother, so she spends most of her time outdoors.
Antoinette is a bridesmaid at her mother's wedding to Mr. Mason in Spanish Town. She scowls at the wedding guests because she remembers over-hearing their malicious gossip about her family.
Antoinette and Pierre stay with their aunt Cora in Spanish Town while Annette and Mr. Mason go off to Trinidad for their honeymoon.
When Annette and Mr. Mason return, Antoinette admires her mother while she dances.
Mr. Mason wonders why Aunt Cora didn't help them more when Mr. Cosway died. Antoinette explains that Aunt Cora's husband hated the West Indies, and Aunt Cora had to stay in England with her husband until he died.
Mr. Mason, Annette, Antoinette, and Pierre return to Coulibri, which Mr. Mason has spruced up.
Antoinette walks into Christophine's room and is fearful. Without seeing anything, she feels sure that an obeah charm is hidden somewhere in the room. We don't know if there is, in fact, a shriveled hand, some chicken feathers, and a nearly decapitated rooster piled somewhere in the room, because Christophine walks in cheerfully and Antoinette forgets the whole episode. Or thinks she does.
After a year, Annette pushes Mr. Mason to take the family away from Coulibri. Annette insists that the blacks in the area (many of whom are her former slaves) are planning something terrible, but Mr. Mason thinks she's just paranoid. It's not clear why Mr. Mason wants to stick around so badly when he's got estates on other islands, but Antoinette is glad he wants to stay.
On their way home after an outing, the family notices that the surrounding huts are empty. Mr. Mason wonders if there's a dance or a wedding. Annette is convinced that there's something more sinister going on and wants to leave the estate with Pierre.
At dinner, Mr. Mason talks about his plan to import workers from the East Indies because he thinks the local population is too lazy. (Again, why does he want to stay?!) Annette warns him not to talk about his plans in front of Myra, their black servant, because she might tell the other blacks in the area of his plans.
Antoinette peeks in on Pierre as he sleeps in his crib. She hears the bamboo creaking and a "sound like whispering" outside, but when she looks, she doesn't see anyone there (I.1.7.29). It's a full moon.
Antoinette goes to bed, and waits for Christophine to come by to say good night – but there's no Christophine.
Annette wakes Antoinette and tells her to get dressed. Antoinette hears her mother going next door to Pierre's room and talking with Myra, who's watching Pierre. Still half-asleep, Antoinette thinks she hears a chair fall in Pierre's room, and then gets up.
Everyone is assembled downstairs: Antoinette, Mr. Mason, Annette, Christophine (who has magically re-appeared without any explanation), and their servants, Mannie and Sass. Antoinette notices that both Godfrey and Myra are missing. Mr. Mason walks outside where a crowd has gathered. He asks them what they want, and he's greeted by a noise "like animals howling" (I.1.7.2).
Annette wonders if it was a good idea to leave Pierre in his room alone with Myra (um…you think?). She wrings her hands, and her wedding ring falls off. Just then, Mannie notices that the back of the house where Pierre's bedroom is located is on fire.
Annette runs to Pierre's bedroom and carries Pierre out in her arms. He seems lifeless, and his eyes have rolled back into his head. Annette berates Mr. Mason for refusing to leave Coulibri sooner. Mannie, Sass, and Christophine try to put out the fire.
Everyone leaves the house through a back way. Mr. Mason tries to get Annette to leave, but she refuses abandon her parrot, Coco, a sad little bird who's been kind of snippy ever since Mr. Mason clipped his wings.
Once outside, they find themselves taunted by a huge crowd. Antoinette doesn't recognize many of them, and wonders if they are not locals, but people who live by the bay.
Mr. Mason curses at them, then decides to try a prayer. Just as he ends his prayer, the taunting stops.
Was it the prayer? Maybe, maybe not. Because here comes Coco – that's right, the parrot. He's perched on a railing, his feathers on fire, but of course he can't escape because Mr. Mason clipped his wings. So the poor bird just sits there, flaming.
Fortunately for everybody else, it's a common superstition that it's bad luck to kill a parrot or even watch a parrot die. So, before anyone can see Coco breathe his last, pitiful bird-breath, everyone looks away, and the rioters pull back.
Antoinette and her family, however, aren't quite out of the woods yet. Their carriage is held up by a man who insists that they'll report the rioters to the police, who will return and punish the rioters all the more violently because they're black. Aunt Cora replies that the man will suffer all manner of torments in hell, which he seems to find compelling because he lets them into the carriage. A couple of women in the crowd seem to feel sorry for Antoinette and her family and begin to cry.
But wait – Antoinette's not going in the carriage. She sees Tia and her mother in the distance, and runs to Tia. She sees Tia holding a jagged rock in her hand, but she doesn't see Tia throw it or feel the stone. Instead, she feels blood running down her face, and when she looks up, Tia is also crying.