"Where I come from, disguise is the only truth and desire the only true measure of time," the riddling, feisty narrator of The Ventriloquist's Tale
asserts. Pauline Melville explores the effects of both of these in her dark--and often deeply funny--narrative of forbidden love and the clash of cultures. Set in the Guyanese capital of Georgetown and on its distant savannahs, Melville's first novel turns on the tragic absurdities of colonialism, capitalism, and fanaticism, not to mention a pair of very illicit relationships. In the 1920s, two mixed-race siblings find it surprisingly easy to be together and unsuspected:
"Just like the brown and black patterns in the artwork on the woven baskets and sifters and matapees, where it is not always possible to tell foreground from background and the animal symbols are disguised by being embedded in a geometrical whole, Beatrice and Danny were miraculously concealed by their home setting."
In the present-day strand, Chofy McKinnon, Danny's nephew, has an intense and tragic affair with Rosa Mendelson, an English academic looking into Evelyn Waugh's journey to Guyana in the 1930s. Waugh, possessed of "a pushed-up face and little pebble eyes," had stayed with the McKinnons, and forced Danny in particular to listen to hour after hour of Dombey and Son--a brilliant spin on Waugh's reportage from the Amazonias, not to mention his novel A Handful of Dust
. Melville offers up an acute vision on Guyana's colonial past and present, and on the pull between nature and culture, superstition versus rationalism, blindness and sight. She knows that there is no easy middle ground, perhaps no middle ground at all. "You say we have to mix," Chofy's cousin cries. "What to do? We're destroyed if we mix. And we're destroyed if we don't." Readers will be hard-pressed to descry any moral in the astonishing Ventriloquist's Tale
(though order and institutions aren't held in high esteem). As for forbidden love--it definitely doesn't conquer all, but its memory is bliss in Beatrice's later, respectable years: "She barely had time to remember that other love which had flowed always under the grind of daily life; a sweet underground river that sometimes broke through to the surface and made its own music, but mainly stayed hidden, so that she only carried the echoes of its song." --Kerry Fried
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About the Author
Pauline Melville's first book, Shape-shifter, a collection of short stories, won the Guardian Fiction Prize, the Macmillan Silver Pen Award and the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for best first book. The Ventriloquist's Tale is her first novel.
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