15 December 2011

A High Wind in Jamaica, by Richard Hughes

This book is so fucking wild. It's honestly one of the most shocking novels I've ever read, I think. To wit: "It would have surprised Mrs. Thornton very much to have been told that hitherto she had meant practically nothing to her children." Lines like this abound, calm announcements of rather astonishing claims that go against everything you thought you had believed about human beings and how they work and yet seem somehow true. It is, at moments, hilariously funny. It is also deeply chilling and seriously messed up. It's a great book.

 The novel is the story of a group of children, initially living in Jamaica (with all the racist portrayals of the "natives" that you might expect, sad to say) who get sent back to England and end up on a pirate ship. It is in many ways like the adventure novels of Robert Louis Stevenson, or Jules Verne, except that it's told with this absolutely incredible - and utterly devastating - insight into human psychology. The prose, incidentally, is also quite lovely, in that somewhat laconic 1920s kind of way. For example:

 When swimming under water, it is a very sobering thing suddenly to look a large octopus in the face. One never forgets it: one's respect, yet one's feeling of the hopelessness of any real intellectual sympathy. One is soon reduced to a mere physical admiration, like any silly painter, of the cow-like tenderness of the eye, of the beautiful and infinitesimal mobility of that large and toothless mouth, which accepts as a matter of course that very water against which you, for your life's sake, must be holding your breath. There he reposes in a fold of rock, apparently weightless in the clear green medium but very large, his long arms, suppler than silk, coiled in repose, or stirring in recognition of your presence. Far above, everything is bounded by the surface of the air, like a bright window of glass. Contact with a small baby can conjure at least an echo of that feeling in those who are not obscured by an uprush of maternity to the brain. (119)
A long time ago I wrote a post on a novel called Weiser Dawidek, by Pawel Huelle. Recently, someone left an angry comment on the post, telling me I was sooooo wrong. Interestingly, one of the things I hadn't liked about the book was that it seemed to me to be really fascinated with how children see the world, a topic I claimed to find totally uninteresting. Well, as it turns out, I was wrong. When done well, portrayals of childrens' perspectives are fucking riveting. I mean, one of the incredible aspects of High Wind in Jamaica is its depiction of how these kids process what's happening to them. And it is totally fascinating. It's a fairly non-sentimental account - the children aren't particularly valorized or held up as innocent little angels. Often as not, they're vicious, bothersome little shits, even when they are very cute and precious. In other words - you don't have to love kids to like this book. Not at all. In fact, people who have treacly adoring views of children would probably hate this novel.

The pirates, by the way, are also fantastically well done. Lovable but in no way idealized, and in fact, deeply problematic in many ways. They are sympathetic characters, but also occasionally monstrous. Basically, to read this book is to take on a seriously intense moral ambiguity that is cast in very human and persuasive terms. It's kind of devastating, in a way.

But yeah. This book is fantastic. Much recommended.


TB said...

I liked this book a lot when I first read it, particularly the first part that has no pirates.
I missed the dichotomy evil children - good pirates completely and only found out about it much later when discussing the book with somebody. In my recollection the "universe of children" was vastly bigger than the "universe of pirates".

culture_vulture said...

I don't know that the pirates are "good," exactly. Actually, I wouldn't say that they are. But without giving away too much, one could say the children are guilty of worse things than the pirates are - which is a neat aspect of the book, and a subtle one.