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

Sunday, July 19, 2009

#55: The Pirate's Daughter -- Margaret Cezair-Thompson

She was conscious of the poetry of it all and wished she had the ability to write something that would capture what was in and around her: the eyeless, surging sea, the tree-cutter's stare, the blue skirt, and the strain of her unfulfilled hopes. In his letter Errol hinted at a muddle of lies. Let that be his portion, then. She had her child. (p. 169)

The Pirate's Daughter is the story of two Jamaican women, Ida -- who at sixteen has an affair with Errol Flynn -- and her daughter May. Both are light-skinned, mixed-race, beautiful and unwise. Ida loves Flynn much more, and for much longer, than he loves her: May takes up with a variety of unsuitable men, older or married or unmarriageable. Around them, Jamaica is changing: independence, change of government, rioting and racial tension.

I'd have liked this novel much more if there'd been more first-person narration: Ida's letters from New York to friends and family, and later May's letters from Switzerland, were the most compelling sections of the book, each woman having a distinctive voice. The rest of the prose is understated and occasionally clumsy: there's too much told rather than shown, for instance when a friend's son takes up music lessons and Ida spends a paragraph remembering how he's always been musical. Flynn's portrayed as a rather unlikeable character -- which I find credible at that stage in his life -- but there's little of the famous charm and wit as balance, and the scenes from his point of view are lacklustre: perhaps fair for a man who's bored, vain, fears ageing and is constantly on the lookout for new thrills, but it felt superficial.

Much of the novel is set on Navy Island, a small isle just off the coast of Jamaica, formerly home to Captain Bligh (of Bounty fame) and then to Flynn. Inspired by her father's films and by pirate lore, May starts writing the story of Sabine, the daughter of pirates, abandoned when young and eventually walking the island as a ghost. I Sabine will tell you how I came to be on this desolate island ... I'd have liked more of May's writing, more of the coded story she tells.

Though there's plenty of coded story in the novel. Ida's friends name-drop 'Noel' -- Ida knew they were talking about the writer Noel Coward, who lived not far from there along the coast. (p.76) -- but 'Nigel Fletcher', author of a series of best-selling thrillers featuring secret agent Jack Blaze, is surely based on Ian Fleming.

Ida's grandmother Oni remembers her African heritage, warns her daughter against pirates (like Flynn, well-known for The Sea Hawk and Captain Blood) and tells May she's 'a real African'. Her influence is the most visible aspect of the women's liminal state, neither white (they both think of themselves as coloured) nor black (they're both accepted as white and become part of white society). The racial discrimination they encounter varies: Ida loses a restaurant job in New York because she doesn't recognise the segregation around her, and doesn't realise that telling her boss she's coloured can do her any harm. A generation later, in Switzerland, May is perturbed to be called 'une negresse' and uncomfortable with others' insistence that she recognises the racism and exploitation in her own family:
One day when he saw me putting sugar in my coffee he asked me if sugar didn't remind me of the cane fields where my white ancestors forced my slave ancestors to work. (p. 373)

The Pirate's Daughter is an increasingly compelling read -- the scenes between May and her stepfather near the end of the book, when secrets are revealed and identities remade, are immensely powerful -- but left me wanting more connections, more emphasis on echoes and parallels, more tying up of loose threads. Who's the ghost who walks Bella Vista? Errol Flynn, Captain Bligh, Sabine, Ian? What influence does Oni have? How does Ida know when people die? Is there gold, are there shipwrecks, where Karl's been searching?

Fascinating, readable but it was on the verge of being so much better!

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