May 19, 2008
Richard Hughes: A High Wind in Jamaica
When a trusted source recently named Richard Hughes’ novel A High Wind in Jamaica as a book that “just flat out blind-sided me with [its] perfection,” I knew I had to have it. It was one of those synchronicity things: I remember, a decade back or more, seeing it forever languishing on the tables in my local Waterstone’s in a handsome Harvill edition, which was to me the only thing notable about it (even then I was a publishing-house geek). It stuck in my head but I never bought it. Then I remember reading in Martin Amis’s memoir Experience about his involvement in the film adaptation – Little Mart, the child star! The third encounter recently was all I needed.
A High Wind in Jamaica – pictured above in the US edition by NYRB Classics, below in the UK edition by Vintage Classics (no prizes for guessing which one I bought) – was published in 1929, the first of only three novels that Hughes published in his lifetime. It engages with the contrasts and connections between childhood and adulthood in a way I’ve never quite seen before, and does so in an elliptical, almost evasive manner. This is my way of admitting that although I got a lot from this book, I didn’t feel I quite grasped it completely.
It opens in a dreamy style, in late 19th century Jamaica, where an English family, the Bas-Thorntons, live. “It was a kind of paradise for English children to come to, whatever it might be for their parents: especially at that time, when no one lived in at all a wild way at home. Here one had to be a little ahead of the times: or decadent, whichever you like to call it.” In these scenes Hughes evokes the novelty of the flora and fauna through the Bas-Thornton children’s viewpoint, and displays both a vivid eye and a sense of playfulness:
John had to take a sporting gun, which he bulleted with spoonfuls of water to shoot humming-birds on the wing, too tiny frail quarry for any solider projectile. For, only a few yards up, there was a Frangipani tree: a mass of brilliant blossom and no leaves, which was almost hidden in a cloud of humming-birds so vivid as much to outshine the flowers. Writers have often lost their way trying to explain how brilliant a jewel the humming-bird is: it cannot be done.
That wonderful phrase about the gun being “bulleted with spoonfuls of water” feels like one that will stick in my head for a long time.
When the “high wind” of a hurricane hits the island (though their daughter Emily mistakes it for an earthquake), the Bas-Thorntons decide to send the children back to England ahead of their own return. Hughes reminds us that this was an era when parenthood, at least for the well-off, was not as child-immersive an experience as it is now. Because of this, “it would have surprised Mrs Thornton very much to be told that she meant practically nothing to her children.” The parents, fearful for the children’s physical and mental wellbeing – though during the hurricane “they were so brave, so English” – persuade them to return alone:
“Think what an adventure it will be!”said Mrs Thornton bravely.
“But I don’t want any more adventures!” sobbed Emily: “I’ve got an Earthquake!”
Just how much of an adventure is to be revealed, when the ship on which the children are travelling, the Clorinda, is hijacked by pirates. “Piracy had long since ceased to pay, and should have been scrapped years ago: but a vocational tradition will last on a long time after it has ceased to be economic, in a decadent form.” This is the point at which the sensible blogger must draw a veil over any further discussion of the plot, as there are some surprising and disturbing revelations to be had.
What A High Wind in Jamaica gives us is a highly original approach to the relationship of power between adults and children, and some of the most disquieting scenes of the book are where the children discover and explore their new awareness of power, whether violent or sexual. Also unusual is Hughes’ involvement in the text, appearing from time to time as an “I” in an otherwise omniscient narrative. This is a tool I immediately warm to – James Salter used the same technique in Light Years – but it can interfere with the book’s strength in presenting everything from the point of view of the children, so the reader is left to interpret reality for himself. In one passage Hughes offers, with some irony, the following:
Being nearly four years old, [Laura] was certainly a child: and children are human (if one allows the term “human” a wide sense): but she had not altogether ceased to be a baby: and babies of course are not human – they are animals, and have a very ancient and ramified culture, as cats have, and fishes, and even snakes: the same in kind as these, but much more complicated and vivid, since babies are, after all, one of the most developed species of the lower vertebrates.
[...] It is true they look human – but not so human, to be quite fair, as many monkeys.
Subconsciously, too, everyone recognises they are animals – why else do people always laugh when a baby does some action resembling the human, as they would at a praying mantis? If the baby was only a less-developed man, there would be nothing funny in it, surely.
The flurry of commas, dashes and colons that punctuate the first paragraph above are an indication of the eccentric nature of the book generally. Hughes’ characters at times seem little more than toys at his beckoning – which of course, as fictional constructs, they are, and his invasions of the narrative anyway remind us that we’re reading an invention. A High Wind in Jamaica is a book which I can imagine frustrating as many people as it delights. In the end I came down in favour, through presuming that any weaknesses were in my own reading and not in the writing – which is so assured, so often – and anyway, even when we don’t absolutely love a new book, it’s impossible to regret reading something so strange and intriguing, as foreign to me as faraway England was to the children and the pirates.