No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Saturday, October 08, 2005

#84: The Ventroloquist's Tale -- Pauline Melville

I suspect I bought this book when it first appeared in paperback: 1998. Melville's short stories are a delight. They're not quite fantasy, not quite magic realism, usually oriented around female characters but not feminist, not mythological ...

So much for the short stories. As far as I can tell this is Melville's only novel, and I wish she'd written more, for The Ventroloquist's Tale has a first-novel feel.

It's set in Guyana, in the Indian (Wapisiana) population, partly in the 1920s and partly 'contemporary', though no later than mid-1980s. There's a framing first-person narrative which is immediately arresting:
Spite impels me to relate that my biographer, the noted Brazilian Senhor Mario Andrade, got it wrong when he consigned me to the skies in such a slapdash and cavalier fashion. I suppose he thought I would lie for ever amongst the stars ...

And, later, "I am the one who can dig time's grave".

[Andrade, I've just found out, is the author of Macunaima, the definitive guide to a Brazilian trickster-god. There: you now have more information than I did.]

That framing narrative has a more accessible voice than either the modern protagonist -- Chofy McKinnon, half-Wapisiana, half-Scots -- or Beatrice and Danny McKinnon, his ancestors, growing up in the Guyanan savannah in the early part of the 20th century. Each story provides a different twist on doomed romance. Chofy goes to Georgetown, falls instantly in love with an English historian who's researching Evelyn Waugh (who mentions the McKinnons, allegedly, in his diary) and almost leaves everything behind. Beatrice and Danny, who are the core of the story, fall in love and have a child, but they're brother and sister: the child is an idiot, Beatrice is sent away to Montreal, Danny lives the life of a reprobate and lies with his last breath.

The minor characters are vivid to the point of stereotype: Father Napier, the priest with an eye for his young Indian converts, sent mad by fever or poison and setting fire to every church he's founded; Alexander McKinnon, trying to photograph the stars during an eclipse after reading about Eddington's 1919 experiment; Maba and Zuna, his Wapisiana wives.

The two threads of the story -- and that sly framing voice -- are interrelated in all sorts of ways, but sometimes it's hard work to spot the connections. There's the 'carnal, dirty' moon, and the myth of how the moon came to be marked. There are unwanted children, mysterious animal-noises (that ventroloquist), mistaken identities in the dark. I think there's a point at which all three stories intersect (is this truly the ventroloquist's tale? do I have to believe the title of the book to understand it?) but when I went back to find the relevant passage, I couldn't.

Melville's writing is clear and clever, and markedly original, though at times I felt she wrote Beatrice as though she were a modern European. There are some lasting images in this novel, and some similes that had me mentally applauding the author's perception.

One note: if I were producing this book, I don't think I'd have prefaced it with quotations about incest. That aspect of the plot would work better if not so directly signalled: it's a mystery at first to Beatrice, but not to the reader.

Recommended, though, for anyone who enjoys novels that aren't centred around the white Western mindset; for anyone who enjoys reading good prose.

reposted here from LJ in order to keep all my reviews in one place

No comments:

Post a Comment