Tuesday, September 1, 2009
Modern Library's Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century Quest: #71
Title: A High Wind in Jamaica
Author: Richard Hughes
Judgin' the Book By Its Cover: What an evocative cover! The contrast between the roiling black skies and the bright, oversized fruit and flowers illustrates the darkness about to overtake the dreamscape of Jamaica. Even the poppies in the foreground suggest an unpleasant, opiatic vision.
Thoughts: This novel, originally published in 1929, tells the story of the sea voyage of seven children from Jamaica to England. After a hurricane levels the family homestead, the Bas-Thorntons send their five children unaccompanied back to the motherland to be nurtured by civilization. Two neighbor children join them on the journey. But the hurricane was only the beginning of the nightmare for the children; not long after departing from Montego Bay, the boat is taken over by pirates, and the children are haphazardly abducted. During the resulting time, the pirates try to adhere to a strict moral code when dealing with the children, but the children themselves soon devolve into amorality.
Hughes' interest in the psychology of children is evident, and he is particularly interested in the opposing ways that adults and children view each other. He certainly punctures the myth of the innocence of childhood, and maintains that within the most angelic naif there lies calculated deception. Hughes' prose is very detached, withholding judgment and refusing to show emotion in the face of extreme events. Similarly, the children react to tragedy with a cool indifference, almost immediately forgetting about the death of a family member. Instead, they fixate on details that could only be of importance to a small child ("There was a monkey!"), and they place a much higher premium on propriety than on actions or motive.
The book has rightly been described as nightmarish, and has also been likened to The Lord of the Flies. In my mind, at least the beginning of it bore a greater similarity to the beginning of Wide Sargasso Sea-- the images of a ruined landscape and collapsed slave economy induce an instant feeling of dread. By the end of the novel, the weaknesses of every character lie in plain sight for all to see. So perhaps this story is simply a post-colonial metaphor, an elucidation of the evil that lurks just under the polite, well-mannered surface of the colonizing British.