Customer Review

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Whitbread Award for First Novel!, 17 Feb 1999
By A Customer
This review is from: The Ventriloquist's Tale (Hardcover)
n a bookjacket blurb for the British edition, Salman Rushdie describes Melville as "a beguiling new voice....one of the few genuinely original writers to emerge in recent years." High praise. The Ventriloquist's Tale opens and closes with addresses by a mysterious, third person ventriloquist/narrator, representing the old Amerindian culture of myth and magic of southern Guyana, a narrator who indicates that he is not the hero of the book because, as he tells the reader, "Your heroes and heroines are slaves to time.... They've forgotten how to be playful and have no appetite for adventure."
As the narrator unfolds the stories of the McKinnon family, half Scottish and half Wapisiana, we see illustrated in their lives the conflicts (and occasional melding) of their ancient ways with western science, religion, and exploitation. The narrator and, one understands, the author come down strongly on the side of the ancients, as the Amerindian characters enchant, amuse, and play with us while they show us their struggle with European intruders, including, at one point, Evelyn Waugh in search of inspiration. We laugh with them, even as they face privation and hardship, and see with their eyes how ridiculously arrogant and ignorant the intruders are because the intruders do not see that "everyday life...[is] an illusion behind which [lies] the unchanging reality of dream and myth."
Melville, is, thankfully, not one of the Magic Realists, nor is she a satirist. By presenting the taboo subject of incest realistically as a primary plot line, she emotionally involves the reader--after all, who, among us westerners, is not instinctively repelled by the idea--yet we like the characters involved, we are intrigued by the old beliefs that the eclipse of the sun by the moon is itself an incestuous act, and we understand how limiting it is to reduce eclipses and relationships solely to equations and to write research papers on the structural elements of myth. We see that Father Napier is driven mad because he believes "these [Indians] think entirely in the concrete....[They] have no word for sin, virtue, mercy, kindness, truth..." And we appreciate and rejoice in the brilliance of the Indians in "divining what you would like to hear and saying it, so you can never be really sure what we think....Ventriloquism at its zenith." A fascinating and unusual novel!
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