Book Review: Huracán, by Diana McCaulay

 

Diana McCaulay’s second novel begins with an apprehensive account by its contemporary protagonist, a young, white, middle class Jamaican émigré called Leigh McCaulay (the surname not the only thing shared by character and author) upon her return to her country of birth. What could be an all-too-familiar tale of homecoming, reunion and disillusion, though, is immediately—from the very first line—nuanced by the oblique perspective from which McCaulay tackles the issues that most concern her in this novel: race and identity.

“White gal,” a tramp shouts at Leigh as soon as he sees her on a part of Kingston tourists tend—wisely—to avoid. There’s nothing flattering about the man’s remark, which angers and frustrates her—she wants to be identified as a Jamaican, she wants to explain that regardless of the whiteness of her skin she shares something with the damning vagrant, something essential, a common identity, she wants to be recognized as one of us. All at once, McCaulay places the reader in a scenario that effectively reverses the racial dynamics and stereotypes of the North, but which presents mirroring characteristics: white, educated, well-to-do Leigh is the outsider in this society, in this “black country” that is not particularly open to or interested in her values or potential, a society in which she represents the Other, and which therefore regards her with disdain and resentment, tacitly holding her responsible for crimes past.

Huracán is Diana McCaulay’s effort to trace back the source of this resentment and try to make sense of the complex elements that configure Jamaican society to this day. This effort takes the author on a journey through three different periods in the island’s history: first she presents the reader with the adventures of a young man named Zachary Macaulay (the variation in the spelling almost an allegory of the pure, unadulterated foreignness of this character, prior to any contact with the Caribbean) whose father, a Scottish reverend, sends him to Jamaica in 1785 as a disciplinary measure, in the hope that “perhaps the Indies will make something of ye.” Zachary’s experiences are collated with those of his great-grandson, John, who joins the Baptist Church and in 1886 is sent to the land he associates with his ancestor’s tales in order to offer spiritual guidance to a rural community. Finally, four generations down the line from John the Baptist, Diana McCaulay tells Leigh’s story, who’s experience at a grassroots non-governmental organization in Kingston in 1987 helps her to decipher the particularities of her own identity as she digs beneath the surface of the ill-fated yet tragically common traffic accident which had recently taken her mother’s life. Thus, Huracán is articulated around three key realizations that, one by one, hit Zachary, John and Leigh respectively, weaving through  a fragmentary structure of alternating episodes a single discourse about the larger issue of Jamaican society in general.

The first of these realizations comes when sixteen-year-old Zachary is confronted with slavery, a topic he is only familiar with through theory. While initially he tries not to think too much about the subject (“he was just there for a job”), he quickly finds himself imbued in a system that pervades every aspect of life. Faced with the horror of slavery, Zachary finds a mechanism of defense in regarding the slaves as animals, the only possible rationalization that allows him to digest the cruelty he witnesses. This mechanism serves him well, for he swiftly slides into a pattern of behavior that makes him lean toward the corner of the slave owners. Until Zachary comes face-to-face with the abominable abuse inflicted on some slaves by a lewd and cruel overseer—the sort of wanton damage his own employer has the power, if not the inclination, to exert on his property. This is when Macaulay understands that, practicalities notwithstanding, there is no conceptual difference between a “good” slave owner and a “wicked” one, because when it comes to terror no distinctions of degrees can be made, the difference between one lashing and thirty none other than that between “death today and death tomorrow.”

Meanwhile, in the second thread of the novel, Zachary’s two great-grandsons move from Glasgow (where Zachary returned to advocate for the abolition of slavery) to Jamaica. The brothers, both Baptist pastors, are separated on arrival and take it upon themselves to make a difference in their respective communities. The narrative closely maps the story of John (Leigh’s great-grandfather), a (white) man full of contradictions whose single purpose is to help the (black) people of Fortress. He sincerely dislikes the blatantly racist town Magistrate, the only white man in the vicinity, but at the same time his daughter, whom he soon marries, is the only person he finds refined enough for his liking. He befriends the town farrier, Cuba, through whom he is able to earn the trust of the local population, but at the same time when his own brother turns up to his wedding in the company of his black betrothed he exhibits as racist a behavior as the Magistrate might have, severing all ties with him—despite himself, John is unable to shed the prejudice his own environment has planted in him. Finally, when Cuba is arrested and put on death row for multiple murder, John is quick to stand by his side. But his inquiries take him to the crime scene and confront him with so gruesome, violent, nauseating a series of events that he finds it hard to comprehend, or even stomach, them. Cuba, he knows, is a good man, and yet Cuba is also capable of the greatest atrocity he could ever conceive of—except that he has been driven to these extremes by the white man’s system that is also responsible for judging him. All of a sudden, John is able to see his congregation’s initial reticence against him, the resistance he had to break down with the assistance of the very man who is about to be hung, from an entirely different perspective.

Back in the future, Leigh is confronted with a similar epiphany: while working in Kingston she witnesses the cold-blooded murder of a street vendor by the police. Cowered and indignant she goes into hiding and ends up reuniting with her long-estranged father, who runs a tourist operation in a plantation near Falmouth. While at the plantation, Leigh learns the gory details of her socialite mother’s death—the event that served as excuse for her return to Jamaica—in a vicious and eminently avoidable collective crime that at the time had shaken the country. Her mother had made a mistake, and she had paid for it with her life. The perpetrators had sidestepped the institutions and taken justice into their own hands. In light of what she has gone through recently, though, in light of how differently Leigh feels about the police, the authority, the system, she isn’t ready to cast quick and unequivocal judgment on anyone. She understands that, ultimately, “[t]hey weren’t killing her […] They were killing the idea of her.” With this admission comes the tacit understanding, of course, that such idea, that of the white privileged class, of the oppressing Other, of the Massa and his descendents, is vividly impersonated by Leigh herself.

Zachary Macaulay’s personal experience of slavery makes him abhor the system, not only because of the harm it causes black people but most importantly because it corrupts human nature as a whole. John McCaulay travels to Jamaica with the conviction that he can help redress the harm that past errors have inflicted upon the black population, but his personal experience makes it perfectly clear that some chasms cannot be bridged. Leigh has returned to Jamaica to help to make it a better place, but her personal experience makes her understand that no matter how hard she tries she can’t make enough of a difference, that sometimes present crime is offset by crimes past, that “All history is crime […] and all of us are displaced but some displacements are worse than others.”

Diana McCaulay. Photo: susumba.com

Huracán is a book of expiation—not all white people who came to the Caribbean were evil, you can almost hear it whisper. It’s also a book of personal vindication—“this was a narrative I could rally behind,” Diana McCaulay intimates in the author’s note at the end of the novel, “I was the descendant of an abolitionist [and] a missionary.” Most of all, though, it is a tough yet forgiving look into what it means to be Jamaican. McCaulay—Leigh, Diana, at this stage they’ve become one and the same—comes to the troubling conclusion that, “Yes, Jamaica is a violent place. Always has been. Begat, born, abiding in violence.”

It would be hard to argue against this admission—it is, after all, a fact—and yet, having read Diana McCaulay’s incisive novel you cannot help but challenge this assessment. To be sure, history—in Jamaica as elsewhere—bears an influence over the present. Nevertheless, the system of violence McCaulay conveys so chillingly cannot possibly be perpetuated by history, it can only be prolonged by the people who are part of the system at present, and as is clear from the examples provided in Huracán,  any system that degenerates in human baseness is detrimental not only to those it victimizes but also to those who hold it in place. Like Zachary, like John, Leigh might not be able to fully transcend her historical moment, the environment that shapes her, but if there is one lesson to be learned from Huracán, it is that change is gradual, and that it has to start somewhere. And that, at any rate, is no minor message.

 

 

Published by the Weekender supplement of Sint Maarten’s The Daily Herald on Saturday November 24 2015.

 

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