Jamaica’s motto is:
"Out of Many One People"
… and indeed, what a particular island we discover through this novel: an island inhabited by Blacks, Whites, slaves from Africa, Spanish first settlers, English who seized the island afterwards, French people, Chinese and Indian laborers, as many as different colors and cultures, this could be a paradise but Men being what they are, it’s most often a hell.
In this fiction, Antoinette Cosway, a creole girl, tells her childhood at Coulibri Estate in Jamaica, where she was born in 1839, seven years after slave abolition.
Between the indifference of her mother and the slave revolts, her fate turns upside down: she is sent to a convent (a school) that she will leave at the age of seventeen, to get married; but marriage is not always synonymous with happiness, far from it ...
After a childhood without education, where she lived as abandoned, poor and wild as the estate in perdition she loved yet, in the convent, Antoinette discovers another world:
"... there are so many things that are sins, why? Another sin to think that. But sins are not sins if they are hunted immediately. You only have to say: Save me, Lord, I perish. I find it very comforting to know exactly what to do. Even though, I did not pray so often after that, and soon I nearly did not pray anymore. I felt more bold, happier, more free. But less safe."
This is something I talk about in my novel L’alibi, still only in French: Freedom has a price and this price is security.
When traumatic events happen, Antoinette reacts in her own way:
"To say nothing and maybe then it would not be true."
As soon as I read that sentence, twice in the beginning of the book, I knew that Antoinette's story could only go wrong. From experience, I know that the years of silence that one imposes oneself for any reason, in one's childhood or adolescence, are as many or more years of suffering that one imposes on the adult one will become.
A pray is supposed to go up to heaven, to touch God or his angels, and fall back on you in grace, strength, or hope. But sometimes it fails, and that gives this beautiful phrase:
"I prayed, but the words fell to the ground, without meaning."
The writing of Jean Rhys doesn’t describe an island, doesn’t tell precisely the story, doesn’t explain what the characters do or think; no, the author suggests. She suggests a country by its colors: the purple mountains, the green vegetation, the deep blue sea, the leaden sky. She suggests the heady fragrances of fresh, dead or rotten flowers. She suggests the intentions of the characters and their character by some images. And nothing is clear, everything is moving like in a dream? No like in a nightmare:
Antoinette "floated in indecision, had no certainty when it came to facts – whatever the fact."
A black man says he is fourteen, and another one mocks him because he doesn’t know his age. It is true that with his gray hair, he seems closer to fifty years old.
One of the rooms in the house seems to be a haven of peace, a refuge. But a servant who’s coming up, silently, no one could say where from, declares that the ancient master didn’t like the place, and the feeling of security leaves you, and you look all around you with distrust.
And here falls the rain, adding to the feeling of unease and vague sadness, and we can hear people speaking a patois mixed with French. In these conditions, a freshly arrived young Englishman has a hard time adapting to the customs, to the inhabitants of the island, and even to his own wife:
"She may be a Creole of pure English descent, these people are not English nor European."
In this moving world with fuzzy contours, Antoinette herself wonder who she is:
"The white cockroach is me. That's how they call us, all of us who were here before people of their own race in Africa sold them to slave traders. And I heard some English women calling us white negroes. I often wonder who I am, where my country is and what race I belong to and why I was born!"
Then finally, yes, she knows:
"Here is my home, it is the country to which I belong, it is here that I want to stay."
By light touches, Jean Rhys depicts characters each loaded with their own and heavy story, each loaded with the history of their motherland; and each story mixes, clashes with that of other characters in a country built on violence: destruction of the natives by the Spaniards in the 16th century, resumption of power by the English, slavery, imported Asian labor under its low price, voodoo, various beliefs, and the last not respected link in this chain: the woman.
And we, readers, panting in the moist heat, oppressed by the dense forest, we’re indecisive as to classify the characters in the "good" or the "bad guys"; certainly because nothing is totally black or white.
So we keep on reading, wondering how all this will end, even though the nightmare becomes darker and darker.
“Desire, Hatred, Life, Death, were very near in the darkness."
Desire, Hatred, Life, Death, are intimately and modestly mingled in this novel.
Hatred drives one crazy. If you are fragile, sensitive, or looking for some happiness or joy, don’t read this book.
PS: I read it in French, so the quotes are not the exact text by Jean Rhys, there’re mine, sorry the author!
Jamaica’s motto is: