An amazing first novel that paints an indelible picture of the many-layered Guyanese society,
This review is from: The Ventriloquist's Tale (Paperback)
Googling the author I found immediately the answer to one question that I had about this novel. Pauline Melville was born in Guyana which explains her depth and breadth of knowledge of the country and its diverse population.
This story engages the reader on so many different levels: inter-racial differences, dislocations of individuals living in culturally-diverse places and situations, Christian faith and cultural belief systems, encyclopaedic information about everyday life in rural and urban Guyana, the strains between educated/advanced societies and indigenous/native communities, historical awareness of Evelyn Waugh's visit to, and feelings about, British Guyana and the people he met (no surprises there!), the ethnic and cultural differences between indigenous populations, the relevance of western science to an understanding cultural myths, the diversity and colour of Guyanese flora and fauna, local foods, traditional healing contrasted with Western medicine, gender differences and societal expectations, US attitudes to Latin America, inter-generational differences, ethnological /anthropological issues and critiques, a love story and, of course, "incest shocker".
To be honest, the latter is so well signposted that anyone likely to be shocked and/or disgusted could have stopped reading well before their sensibilities became damaged. Having completed the book I feel sorry that the readers who were not able to read it all or who read it and only saw the issue of incest from a Western, Judo-Christian perspective had missed such a lot. I only hope that they will seek out some of Melville's other work.
Melville fleetingly introduces a Czech anthropologist, Wormoald - a very non-Czech sounding name, who specialises in comparative mythology and, in particular, researches into incest motifs in Amerindian cultures. John Thieme has taken this to be based upon Claude Levi-Strauss (how did we manage without Google?). Wormoal admits that his knowledge about Amerindian culture is a means of colonial power and that "information is the new gold".
Half way through the book I had to stop myself from reading too quickly, to go back over paragraphs to savour their layered descriptions. Melville handles the many strands of her story expertly and it is difficult to believe that this is only her second book after a collection of short stories, Shape-Shifter (1990), winner of the Whitbread First Novel Award in 1997. The author is also very good at integrating the details about Amerindian life, customs and beliefs into her text without impressing us, at that time, with her vast knowledge. Only later, looking back, does one realise the breadth of her canvass, her attention to detail and unfailing ability to move back and forth in time.
My one negative comment is that I felt that the incidents in Canada were a diversion from her otherwise well-focussed story which did not really add anything to the narrative. Other than that the characters, of all ethnicities and backgrounds, were beautifully realised and the combination of humour and tragedy was deftly balanced.
On the second page of the novel the narrator's grandmother gives her opinion that all writing is fiction "Even writing that purports to be factual, that puts down the dates of a man's birth and the date of his death, is some sort of fabrication. Do you think that a man's life is slung between two dates like a hammock? Slung in the middle of history with no visible means of support?" This is a view of life that, now that I am nearer the latter date than the former, will remain with me.
The author has, excuse the Amerindian analogy, many strings top her bow - film and TV actor, stand-up comedian, rock cabaret artist, political activist and lexicographer, recently compiling a Wapichan dictionary with a cousin - which explains the gaps between her books; as well as Shape-Shifter and The Ventriloquist's Tale she has written The Migration of Gods (1998) and Eating Air (2009) and has received a number of Awards and Prizes for her work.
The book, published in 1997, also has one of the most arresting jacket covers that I have seen. Congratulations to William Webb, the designer, and Luiz Gonzalez Palma, the photographer.