Wednesday, March 09, 2005

A High Wind in Jamaica

by Richard Hughes (1929), an attempt at a book review

Hughes describes a world of simultaneous decay and regeneration. The West Indies, the novel's initial setting, is dotted with the ruins of the prosperous slave era. It is fecund with smothering vegetation. Its people live dilapidated lives and cling to outmoded (or merely incongruent) social conventions. However: "It was a kind of paradise for English children to come to, whatever it might be for their parents."

The Bas-Thornton children thrive in this wild wonderland. They retain "the traditional mental mechanism of Europe", yet their very behaviour rejects it. They are as alien to their parents as they are to England itself, although their parents remain unaware of either fact. For the children, nature in all its violence is embraceable, a fact of life. A hurricane puts fear into their parents' hearts, however, and the children are bundled onto a ship, bound for England, where they will "at least be safe from dangers of that sort".

Not long into the voyage, the ship is attacked by a peculiarly pacifistic band of pirates, who take the children on board their ship. The pirates are innocents, little boys trapped in the bodies of grown men. They share with the children the same small-picture outlook, and a similar propensity for unpredictable flashes of savagery; they differ in that their adult bodies have greater appetites, and their adult minds possess the burden of self-doubt.

The bulk of the novel is taken up with the onboard adventures of pirates and children. Perhaps adventures is the wrong word. It is more a succession of loosely inter-related events, told in an angular, ironic manner. Hughes' children are amoral, reacting rather than reflecting, which leads to the death of one, and the implication in a murder of another. Lord of the Flies taps a similar vein, but A High Wind in Jamaica offers the more effective portrayal of the potential for brutality inherent in childhood innocence. It is also one of the few works written for adults that successfully evokes memories of the inconsistent, narrow mental state of childhood.

Hughes offers no cosy assessment of child or adult, yet is unflinching in his acceptance of their capacity for good and evil. There seems, however, to be a deep distrust of civilisation. The jungle or ocean is a moral lacuna; savagery is prevented from prevailing only by the innate decency of its wild inhabitants. In Victorian England more calculating intelligences are at work, which ultimately prove fatal for the pirates. The children, blank slates that they are, are simply absorbed into the morass of civilisation, and their corruption, Hughes seems to be noting with dismay, is now assured.

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