Books in Brief

Books in Brief

Issue No. 2 – November 2004

Jane Bryce on The Humming-Bird Tree, by Ian McDonald; Jeremy Taylor on Small Island, by Andrea Levy; Nicholas Laughlin on Saraband, by Carolle Bourne

Age of innocence
The Humming-Bird Tree by Ian McDonald (Macmillan Caribbean, ISBN 1-4050-2468-2, 173 pp)

The Humming-Bird Tree, first published in 1969, and now republished in the Macmillan Caribbean Writers series, looks back to a period in Trinidad now lost to memory. But it does not rely on nostalgia for its charm. A rite-of-passage story, it uses the narrative perspective of Alan, a young white boy growing up on a plantation, to powerful effect. In his involvement with, innocent love for, and eventual denial of two Indian village children, Kaiser and Jaillin, it offers an analysis of how race defines, distorts, and ultimately stunts individual happiness and growth.

Ian McDonald is a poet, and the writing flows like water; not magical realism, but magical in its precise evocation of physical detail, infused with a joy tinged with longing, which turns to suppressed desire, and then to outright loss. The tone is, from the outset, ambiguous, shifting between lyricism and realism, celebration and disillusion, love and hate, in such a way as to simultaneously unsettle and captivate the reader. Moments of transcendence — hunting butterflies along the river, dancing in the rain, a cock-fight, shared reverence at a shrine to the Madonna, swimming naked in the dark — are rendered so vividly they live in the imagination after you close the book, all the more poignant for their fragility and evanescence.


McDonald shares with other white creole writers a vision in which whiteness is the inescapable brand of otherness. Yet in tone and atmosphere, he’s closer to Jean Rhys than to younger writers like Lawrence Scott and Robert Antoni, with their sense of genealogy and family ties. The Trinidad he gives us is a rough-made place, where makeshift lives confront the contradictory beauty and cruelty of nature, and intensity substitutes for depth. The loss of childhood is synonymous with the acceptance of man-made rules which demand obedience and impose distance.

In the words of Old Boss, the village chief: “When people small, the worl’ full o’ richness. But, chile, you only have to get big an’ this morsel of a worl’ get cheaper. Look out fo’ that.”

– Jane Bryce

An island is a world
Small Island by Andrea Levy (Review, ISBN 0-7553-0749-6, 441 pp)

Andrea Levy won the 2004 Orange Prize for Fiction with this big, warm-hearted novel. Born in London of Jamaican parents, she has been exploring both worlds in earlier books like Fruit of the Lemon. Small Island is set in drab post-war London, and is built around four main characters — two English and two Jamaican, the four voices alternating and shifting the narrative between present and past, London and Jamaica. The Jamaican couple — recent arrivals, the man a wartime RAF pilot — struggle to come to terms with the Mother Country in all its unexpected manifestations: its sordid living conditions, its racism, its hypocrisies, its ingratitude, its lack of proper colonial respectability. Levy extracts a lot of lively comedy from this, and blends it skilfully with equal amounts of pain. The strength of the book lies in the fact that Levy steers well clear of any sort of moralising, letting the laughter and the hurt do the work. A cunning plot transforms relations between the four in the final pages, a clever denouement that only the reader fully understands. This is a richly rewarding book, Dickensian in its hunger for detail, and it confirms Levy’s place among leading writers of the Caribbean diaspora.

– Jeremy Taylor

Sans safety-net
Saraband (The Incomplete Works of Caroline Ravenspeare) by Carolle Bourne (The Independent Press, ISBN 0-9731327-0-1, 43 pp)

Arriving girded with blurbs from Kamau Brathwaite and Pauline Melville (who compares the author to Dorothy Parker), this slim volume of poems takes a wry look at the stubborn heart and the slings and arrows it suffers for the sake of its moments of pleasure. Worldly but never world-weary, the briefest of these poems are often the best: nervy balancing acts, pirouetting on a silver tightrope suspended over depths either sublime or terrible or both.

– Nicholas Laughlin