May 19, 2008

Richard Hughes: A High Wind in Jamaica

Posted in Hughes Richard, NYRB Classics at 8:06 am by John Self

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

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.

A High Wind in Jamaica

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.

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16 Comments »

  1. adevotedreader said,

    It sounds like a wonderful book. Thanks for your thorough review.

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  3. Isabel said,

    I am assuming that the children had a nanny and had even less interaction with the parents.

    Do upper class parents feel the same way about children today?

  4. JRSM said,

    I loved this book.It was so strange, but not in any pretentious way, and it really lodged in my brain. On my list to get is Hughes’ ‘In Hazard’, forthcoming from NYRB. The blurb says, “In Hazard moves from the world of childhood into that of adulthood and continues Hughes’s exploration of human nature in extremis. The Archimedes is a steamship that is as shipshape as human ingenuity can make it, but all its modern technology isn’t enough to save it when an unbelievably savage storm strikes. In fact, when machines fail technology turns out to be a pact with the devil: the result is a ship you can’t row with mere manpower; a rudder too heavy to move; no way for a carpenter to rig up a mast..”

    Sounds great.

  5. John Self said,

    Thanks for visiting, adevotedreader. As JRSM says, it’s a very strange book, but enticing because of that.

    Isabel, shamefully I can’t remember if the children had a nanny: if they did, she doesn’t form a significant part of the book. Traditionally, in literature anyway, the upper classes have always had a somewhat ‘hands-off’ approach to child-rearing – boarding schools, live-in help and so on – but perhaps everyone would have been like that if they could afford it!

    JRSM, I haven’t heard of In Hazard. Did I get it wrong then about Hughes publishing only three books in his life (High Wind, and the two volumes of the Human Predicament, The Wooden Shepherdess and The Fox in the Attic)? I admit I didn’t check that before I wrote it, just seemed to recall it from somewhere.

  6. bill said,

    John, my understanding is that Hughes published four novels for adults in his lifetime, the three you mention, as well as “In Hazard”. He also published several children’s books, either novellas or collections of stories, the titles of which all escape me.

    “In Hazard” is creeping up my TBR pile.

  7. John Self said,

    Thanks bill. I didn’t know about the children’s books either.

  8. I got an email today saying that NYRB is publishing In Hazard this month. I’ve never read Hughes before, but with this review and what I’ve found about In Hazard I’m excited to get started.

    Such possibilities in reading after a month shackled (self-imposed, I know) to a list of sub-mediocre books!

  9. Sarah said,

    There are some wonderful stories in Hughes’ “The Spider’s Palace”, a collection of stories for children – quirky and surreal, though not quite so (shockingly) strange as A High Wind in Jamaica

  10. John Self said,

    Thanks Sarah – I didn’t realise he had written for children. Might be right up my street in the coming years!

  11. Mikki said,

    What do you think of Margaret and Otto? Did they do it…… or not?

  12. John Self said,

    Sorry Mikki, it’s almost 18 months since I read the book so I haven’t got the faintest idea who you’re talking about.

    Still, my answer is … yes. Sure, why not?

  13. Anne said,

    Of course they did!

  14. tyvon said,

    one of the wierdest summer reading books ever

  15. Frederiek van Rhijn said,

    A high wind in Jamaica is my most favourite book. Top number one!! I have a copy of it in Dutch, English, French and German. All read by me. I also have read In Hazard. Also a very good read. And ofcourse I also have the DVD, audio and videotape of the film.

  16. ALG said,

    Emily did indeed have an Earthquake. What was notable about the experience was the way she completely ignored the Hurricane; a comment on Emily’s psychological make-up.


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