by Hal Hlavinka
A High Wind in Jamaica
by Richard Hughes
NYRB Classics, 1999
279 pages / $14.00 buy from NYRB or Amazon
1. On the surface, Richard Hughes’s A High Wind in Jamaica is a dot-to-dot adventure tale. After a hurricane hits an English settlement in Jamaica, two families decide to send their children back to England. Early on in the voyage the children are taken aboard a pirate ship whereupon they visit exotic ports and busy themselves with imaginary games. They are eventually returned home, and the pirates’ subsequent arrest, trial, and execution rounds out the proceedings. Of course, that last part seems a little extreme and out of place, and that’s really the book’s program, because simmering just below this surface is the constant threat of rape and murder.
2. In the spirit of Calvino’s later lecture on lightness versus weight, the narrative manages to float just above the threat of violence. You get the feeling after a while that Hughes is totally aware that you’re aware of the divide between high adventure and childhood trauma, and so he starts to fuck with your sense that awful things need to happen.
3. And, of course, awful things do happen—often and with startling frankness—but they are always quickly buried under the book’s relentless trend towards lightness.
4. The earliest memory I have is of staring up at the bottom of a kitchen table. I don’t know where I was or what I was doing, but I remember looking at a pattern in the wood and then turning toward a doorway. That’s it. I know I’ve told the memory differently over the years, adding in details about toys or sounds or maybe a smell wafting in, but the truth is that I just have this one scant moving image. I don’t think it’s a lie to embellish something so bland and colorless in texture, and at certain points I might have really believed in the additions.
5. Before I reread the novel to work on this review, I kept thinking it opened with a bigger feint at being a lighthearted adventure, but this is totally wrong. By the end of the first chapter’s scene-setting, two colonial ladies starve to death (or are fed ground-up glass by their servants, who knows!), a black servant drowns in a bathing pool, and countless rats and bats are dispatched by the family’s cat. All the while, we’re reminded that this is “a kind of paradise for English children to come to.” Right.
6. I usually skip introductions, but when I talk about AHWiJ, I almost always fall back on Francine Prose’s brief intro for the NYRB edition: “First the vague premonitory chill—familiar, seductive, unwelcome—then the syrupy aura coating the visible world, through which its colors and edges appear ever more lurid and sharp… The experience of reading Richard Hughes’s A High Wind in Jamaica…evokes the somatic sensations of falling ill, as a child.” Sign me up.
7. Another big theme of the book’s opening is the whole colonial question, which is vital and pressing and could probably be handled with greater finesse than I can muster here. Suffice it to say that the first sentence presents ruined slave quarters, sugar-grinding houses, and mansions, all “fruits of Emancipation in the West Indies.” Considering the adventure-story-through-a-fun-house-mirror about to come, it’s hard not to think that this kind of stage-setting is about just rewards, that the English family deserves everything that’s about to come.
8. A brief digression cum recipe: AHWiJ allegedly contains the first mention of a drink called the Hangman’s Blood—a mixture of rum, gin, brandy, and porter—“innocent (merely beery) as it looks, refreshing as it tastes, it has the property of increasing rather than allaying thirst, and so once it has made a breach, soon demolishes the whole fort.” Clearly the kind of mix that leads to public exposure and pissing blood and, of course, piracy.
9. Is there actually such a thing as an anti-adventure novel? (I’d imagine something like Coetzee’sFoe might come close, although its meta-narrative seems more about deconstructing the adventure genre than teasing out its hidden desires.) And furthermore, if there were such an anti-genre, would it stand in opposition to all of the finicky colonial and gender and race problems inherent in Defoe and Dumas and Stevenson? While AHWiJ is never really a wholehearted rejection of the adventure novel’s Victorian and Enlightenment-era point of view, the ways in which it represses and then inverts these views are extremely sneaky and, by the book’s end, terrifying.
10. The narrative portrays the adult world as a haze of concealed motives and consequences. A pirate’s drunken leer and a parent’s concern over a coming hurricane are met with the same curious misapprehension: that something vital or alarming is just beyond one’s young recognition. But while Hughes draws a kind of tight circular POV around the children, he also lets the reader step out into the larger circle of this adult world, and somewhere between the larger circle and the nested one is a place where motives and the threat of their attendant consequences exist.
11. If this is a book about childhood trauma, then age is one of its organizing principles. The narrative describes the younger children as belonging to an insular interior world, one made up of imaginary friends and governed by play: “where the child-mind lived in the midst of the familiar relics of the baby-mind, like a Fascist in Rome.” If there is a main character, it is the second-oldest girl, Emily, whose continually shifting awareness of her situation makes up the brunt of the novel’s theorizing about when and how one loses innocence. The oldest girl, Margaret, is a kind of cipher for the reader, being old enough in mind and, more frighteningly, body to know that the lawless, violent men around her pose a very real threat. It’s from Margaret that we get the most acute sense that something awful is about to happen, but we never exactly know whether it occurs or not. It’s also of interest to point out that she and her brother are Creole, whereas the rest of the children are white.
12. One major undercurrent in the book seems to be saying that a child’s insular, make-believe world is more savage and illogical and capital-R Real than our adult one—that between the oblivion of infanthood and the logos of adulthood lies the babble of childhood. The kind of pre-conscience link to nature that the Victorians loved to romanticize in books like The Secret Gardenand The Water-Babies would then be more accurately set within a nature red in tooth and claw.
13. “Possibly a case might be made out that children are not human either: but I should not accept it. Agreed that their minds are not just more ignorant and stupider than ours, but differ in kind of thinking (are mad, in fact): but one can, by an effort of will and imagination, think like a child, at least to a partial degree—and even if one’s success is infinitesimal it invalidates the case: while one can no more think like baby, in the smallest respect, than one can think like a bee.”
14. What I’m saying is that it’s also a big fuck you to Victorian children’s lit.
15. There’s a touch of the surreal in the book’s repressed violence. You get the same feeling from Bolaño’s narrative juxtapositions: the threat that something terrifying will bubble up and overwhelm the story, although it never fully does. But it’s Hughes’s unique sense for the surreal’s formula that sets this book apart, playing our fear for the children’s safety against our expectation (or desire?) that something fucked up will happen. The result is the kind of fever-dream narrative that confuses and frightens and, at its best, rubs raw our own hidden aggressions.
16. When violence does erupt in the book, it is bluntly matter-of-fact. When the children sneak off to see a drunken nativity play in Santa Lucia, John, Emily’s male equivalent among the children and up to this point a viable option as a lead character, loses his balance, falls from a window, and breaks his neck. That’s it. Child gone. Much later, after the pirates are tried and found guilty for a murder they didn’t commit (more on this later), the captain cuts his own throat only to have the suicide prevented by his captors, who hang the unconscious man shortly thereafter. There are no major descriptions or drawn-out scenes of violence, just declarative statements.
17. It’s violence as incidental, violence as detail—death as something no different from hunger or fingernails or the color blue. And in this way it’s somehow more fucked.
18. Some publishing history: AHWiJ was first published in America as The Innocent Voyage by Harper & Brothers in 1929, but it was later renamed for its British publication. Maybe Hughes thought the original title was too blunt a play on his themes? NYRB brought the novel back into print in 1999 as their inaugural publication, which is pretty cool, considering the high quality of their titles. The current cover illustration is a detail of Henry Darger’s “Storm Gathers”—a great choice considering the sometimes calm, sometimes extreme content of Vivian Girls and Hughes’s own wishy-washy narrative.
19. The pirates’ bumbling amounts to little more than scare tactics; the only real (as opposed to threatened) instance of person-on-person violence onboard the ship comes when Emily stabs to death a prisoner who’s trying to escape from her room. Sit on that for a second.
20. How can you ever tell what experiences you’ve self-edited (or had edited for you), especially with something as impressionistic as a childhood memory? How can I tell, even now, if the stripped-down version of a memory is just another assumption—a subtraction of details in the hope of finding something true beneath?
21. “The children listened to all they were told: and according to their ages believed it. Having as yet little sense of contradiction, they blended it quite easily in their minds with their own memories; or sometimes it even cast their memories out. Who were they, children, to know better what had happened to them than grown-ups?”
22. Childhood entails a mutability of memory. When the children are with adults at the start and finish of the book, their ability to recall events is at the whim of either imagination or suggestion. The former is something most people associate with adolescence—confusing one’s interior fancies for exterior life—but the latter is far more insidious. In the final section, as the captain and his crew stand trial for a murder that Emily committed, the parents and legal counsel grow weary of their young witness’s inability to recall anything of actual value, so they instead rely on teaching her a script that they assume to be true. So, basically, you can implant in a kid’s head whatever you want them to believe, and, with enough positive reinforcement, it’ll take. Not an idea AHWiJ invents (nor a phenomenon exclusively restricted to children), but it’s something that comes off as particularly chilling when followed by an execution of many of the story’s principal characters.
23. The only mentions of AHWiJ on this site are recommendations for 2 Comments and piracybooks, which are both on point, but I’m going to expand the field by recommending it as adisquieting–pre-Lolita-sweep-the-sexual-trauma-under-the-carpet-only-to-have-it-return-as-a-kind-of-violence-that-implicates-any-romantic-view-of-childhood-warm-weather book.
24. The first memory that I can put into any kind of life-narrative context is one of shame. I must have been eight or nine. I remember running around the living room with my best friend, pretending we were Batman and Robin. It was right around the time the awful Batman Forevercame out, and of course one of us had to fly the Batwing from the top of my dad’s armchair. I remember my friend climbing up and jumping and the chair falling back and denting the wall with a huge bang, and then the inevitable oh shit moment, and then the parental investigation. I remember standing in front of my mom and pointing to my five-year-old sister and saying that she did it. I remember my face feeling really hot and it all being really obvious, but I was now bound in this untruth that I was trying to foist onto someone else. I remember thinking that maybe she would get confused and admit to having done it because she was a child, even more so than I, and so a little suggestion might go a long way. And I remember being really and truly ashamed for the first time when I lied and blamed her, which is basically when I feel like I moved from that inner circle into the outer one, and most of my memories from there on out are as roughly continuous as they get. Until the Hangman’s Blood, etc.
25. There’s also a 1965 film of the same name, directed by Alexander Mackendrick and starring Anthony Quinn as the captain and featuring, get ready, Martin Fucking Amis in his only acting role as one of the captured children. If that doesn’t tie this up with a bizarre little bow, then nothing will.