Fred D’Aguiar’s fourth novel ‘Bethany Bettany’, published in 2003, describes the life of a girl whose father has died and her mother has placed her with his family, the Abrahams, who live together in a rambling mansion in Boundary, a town in a Caribbean country, presumably the author’s Guyana. The family blames her mother for their son’s death and, moreover, they see so much of her in the girl.
The title refers to the girl’s dual identity – at the end of the book we realise the significance of these complementary names. Not only do her relatives not care for her, but punish her in any way they can for what they see as her mother’s wickedness. Her relatives are presented as Aunt the Sneer, Aunt the Slap, Aunt the Spit, Uncle the Jab and the sole exception, Kind Aunt.
There is much we do not know about BB’s life prior to coming to Boundary - she lived in England with her parents, has seen them argue and make up, and may in some way be involved in her father’s death. There are hints that communication between mother and daughter has been prevented and that the former is involved in politics.
The book is narrated alternately by most of its characters: Bethany and Bettany, her mother, the mostly unforgiving aunts and uncles, her matriarchal grandmother who remains in her room awaiting the return of her unreliable husband, headmaster, priest and two youths, Fly and Mad Rick. These and sections describing her dreams and visits to the capital [‘Georgetown Calling’] create a complex, layered story in which the reader always knows much more than BB and, with so many conflicting images, is aware of the narrators’ varying unreliability.
The author introduces an element of Magic Realism in enabling BB to ‘flatten’ herself and pass under doors and view other characters unseen, as they examine their inner feelings of shame after punishing her.
The narrative is fragmentary, contrasting BB’s view of her world and how she deals with the uniform bleakness of her life with the Ambrahams, where she sleeps in a cupboard, avoids other children and works out how best to put up with the verbal, physical and mental violence inflicted upon her, almost without thinking. Her ill-treatment results in her developing a stammer that reinforces her silence and self-reliance.
The boundaries are many, between the town and the capital, between BB’s life with her parents and with her relatives, between Bethany and Bettany, between girl and woman, and between BB’s life in England and in Boundary. BB is presumably a metaphor for the country, young, confused and infused with violence.
The author’s control is evident through his use of reported speech, lengthy paragraphs, insertion of rather stilted ‘conversations’ and references to homework and BB’s random reading of a dictionary: ‘syncretism’ and ‘abiogenesis’, random words that are actually selected with care. Just as BB can squeeze under doors, so can the author squeeze and squirm away from the reader. This is a high-risk strategy as the reader may get tired of the game and give up.
However, there is much fine writing – children, playing with rusty tin cans that can cut and cause tetanus, work like ‘diamond cutters, brain surgeons and chemists handling explosions or poisons.’ The politically-active headmaster thinks that ‘A beating is medicine for an illness that must be cured otherwise it becomes epidemic and consumes a child, sends that child into an adult life of criminality and despair. The way the state handles a bad adult damages that adult far more than any beating a child receives.’
As BB grows into adulthood, the attitude of the adults around her changes. In one of the most poetic passages, BB heads for the beach and discovers the natural world. ‘Two courting butterflies shadow me in that zigzag dance of flight where the wings almost collide or tie themselves up but never do’...‘They leave me at a turn in the path as they gyrate over the sugarcane. I want to follow them. I wish for a pair of wings, with or without powder. And someone to fly with me, preferably my mother or father, ideally both.’
The book promises a great deal but, in its last third, it introduces the names of the uncles and aunts, presumably to identify them as individuals than as agents of abuse, takes the reader back in time, explores a civil war and introduces new characters. This feels very rushed and, even, out of control. It is almost as if there is another border between the earlier writing that is controlled and structured, and the last third in which two or three sub-plots jostle to be included.
This book is well worth reading for the imagery of its first 200 pages but, as a whole, it rather disappointed.