Warning: As with most books I want people to read for themselves, I don’t spoil much of A High Wind in Jamaica.
A friend told me about A High Wind in Jamaica years ago and I’ve been wanting to read it ever since. Some time ago, the New York Review of Books said it was one of the best novels of the twentieth century or something. I even got halfway through once. It was my turn to pick for my book club, and the rest of the group went along with me, so I finally got to read it.
Written in 1929 and set in the nineteenth-century Caribbean, A High Wind in Jamaica is the story of the Bas-Thornton family. Mr. and Mrs. Bas-Thornton have five children and live in a ruined plantation. Most of the story is filtered through the perspective of the children, particularly the oldest daughter, Emily, age 10. After a hurricane destroys their home, Mr. and Mrs. Bas-Thornton put the children on a boat bound for England. The ship is taken by pirates and the children (along with those from another family they knew in Jamaica) are also abducted. But what follows is not exactly what you’d expect.
The novel actually really reminded me of Wide Sargasso Sea, and even Jane Eyre in some regards, particularly in the descriptions of the islands. (For some reason, all the vegetation seems to bother British-born characters.) Hughes’s novel takes place after the 1833 Emancipation of Britain’s Caribbean colonies, but the narrator says something about not being to the West Indies since 1860, so I think it might take place in that intervening 20-25 year period. Either way there are similar shades to Rhys’s novel, though the locale is portrayed very differently.
I’m not 100% sure what I thought of this novel. I liked it overall, but I think I’d built it up too much in my mind. I found the descriptions to be powerful and economical. The introduction has no biographical notes about Hughes, but does note that he is reacting to Wordsworth’s conception of childhood as some time of purity and innocence. But as someone who has read my share of Victorian novels (though I think I was sick when we talked about Victorian childhoods in my class on Victorian novels), I think Hughes’s portrayal is also a radical departure from those. Characters that I’ve read from Dickens, the Brontës, and George Eliot are pretty innocent, but I’d characterize them more as vulnerable than necessarily innocent (especially Jane Eyre and Catherine Earnshaw).
The Bas-Thornton children are neither innocent nor vulnerable. The psychological portrait Hughes weaves of each is fascinating—unlike almost anything I’ve read before. His style is very dry, very dark, and very matter-of-fact in a macabrely humorous sort of way. I wish I could remember more of the Virginia Woolf I’ve read, because I have the distinct feeling there must be some way they’re similar—probably due to Woolf’s trademark psychological realism. But even Woolf’s child characters seem to absorb everything around them and carry it with them. Hughes’s tend to be oblivious or put up walls or react to immediate circumstances in terrifying or bizarre ways.
At times, the portrait is darkly funny, and sometimes outright disturbing. Again, I’m not entirely sure what to make of the book. I liked it, but I expected to love it. I could chalk it up to a bad reading, but I’m not sure that would remedy things. I was left with a weird feeling of foreboding. Not quite worthy of curling up in the fetal position, but enough it will stay with me until I re-read.
I have to add, I think my reading was colored by two external factors: 1) I had a very stressful week and had to burn through the book in under 24 hours (I know, I know); 2) the night before the book club meeting to discuss A High Wind in Jamaica, I read about 1/5 of the book and then went to see a special showing of Eraserhead. Eraserhead is David Lynch’s first feature film, a terrifying and surreal look at a man who unwittingly fathers a baby that terms out to be severely deformed (i.e., not even human). I can’t help but wonder how much watching Eraserhead colored my reading of A High Wind in Jamaica. I already find kids kind of scary, so between the novel and the movie I think I’m just going to be giving any and all children some serious side-eye for a while yet.