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A Well-Managed Narrative

  • Rachel Manley (Author)
    Drumblair: Memories of a Jamaican Childhood. Vintage (purchase at Amazon.ca)

Reviewed by Anthony Boxill

Drumblair: Memories of a Jamaican Childhood, winner of a Canadian Governor General’s award for non-fiction, is a very Jamaican book. That it is so Jamaican indicates (he rcin.irkablc ability of Canada and of Canadian Literature to absorb writers and their work from what would at first seem to be disparate countries and cultures. The literary landscape of Canada has certainly been made richer and more varied by the work of writers, to name only a few, such as Austin Clarke, Dionne Brand, Cecil Foster, and Neil Bissoondath from the West Indies, and of Rohinton Mistry, Shyam Selvadurai, and M. G. Vassanji from Asia and Africa. To this list must be added the name of Rachel Manley, who now lives in Toronto.

The Manley surname is central to the political and cultural history of modern Jamaica. Rachel’s grandfather, Norman Manley, a leader in Jamaica’s struggle for adult suffrage and responsible government, was eventually elected the island’s first Chief Minister, a title changed to Premier during the brief life of the West Indian Federation. On his defeat by his cousin Alexander Bustamante in a general election, he became the Leader of the Opposition in independent Jamaica’s first Parliament. Rachel’s grandmother, Edna Manley, was for many years Jamaica’s outstanding artist, and her works of sculpture continue to this day to celebrate the island’s history and culture. Their son Michael, the father of Rachel, became Prime Minister of Jamaica, though not in the period covered by this memoir.

Drumblair, Rachel’s memoir, commences in 1949 when at the age of two and a half she arrives in Jamaica to live with her grandparents, and ends on the 2nd of September 1969 when her grandfather, Norman, dies. That she was raised by her grandparents—she was not to see her mother in England for many years, and even after her father returned home she did not live with him—connects her with the experiences of countless Jamaican children known in Canada as "barrel children," a phrase used to suggest their material if tenuous connection with their parents overseas. Though not from a poor family, Rachel shares something of the sense of upheaval of these children.

Drumblair focusses on Jamaica’s first family at a crucial period in this island’s history. One might therefore expect the narrative to be essentially political. This, however, is not the case. Instead we get a personal and intimate account of a family as a whole trying to cope with problems and issues which are not only of personal significance but often also of national importance. The account of the family is given in the first person by someone who, although a mature woman at the time of writing, manages to combine the objective perspective made possible by the distance of time with the more subjective and impulsive account of the small child who lives through the incidents. The portrait of Rachel that emerges is of a bright, sensitive, selfwilled, sometimes troubled child trying to come to terms with a world that is often confusing but always beguiling and fascinating. The naive accounts of political meetings at the house attended by prominent politicians from Jamaica and the other West Indian territories, meetings memorable to her because she can partake of the refreshments prepared for the important visitors, are eventually replaced by disturbed accounts of her experiences at university where fellow students, who see themselves as revolutionaries, make her embarrassed that she is not black and that her name is Manley. They belittle her grandfather’s considerable political achievements as colonialist and even Uncle Tomish. She finds herself torn between her desire to identify with this fashionable group on campus and her urge to be loyal to her grandfather. The depiction of her grandfather and his family in this memoir leaves no room for doubt about where her loyalty should lie, but the anguish of the young Rachel is real just the same.

But Drumblair is no bildungsroman. The character of the narrator is important not just for itself, but for the intimate perspective it provides on the lives of Norman and Edna Manley, and, to a lesser extent, that of Michael Manley. Also important are the sketches of numerous minor characters, the most engaging of whom are the servants— Edith, Zethilda, Batiste —vivid in her memory because of their closeness to the domestic life of the family. They provide glimpses into the attitudes and thoughts of the Jamaican folk, suggesting the personality of the electorate in which Norman and Michael Manley worked.

Rachel Manley does not hesitate to use the device of the omniscient narrator which permits her to enter the minds and emotions of her characters, though she is not writing a novel. She uses this method most often with Edna Manley, whose artistic temperament she strives to convey. For instance, she attributes the following sentiments to Edna: " No, we will not give them our food and we will not give them our leader, Mardi [Rachel’s name for her grandmother] echoed in the recess of her mind."

Neither a novel nor pure autobiography or biography, the narrative is instead a memoir, a composite of these genres, and Rachel Manley uses Drumblair, the family home of the Manleys, as the setting where these various styles intersect and connect. Drumblair is like a quilt in which the pieces—the narrator, her father, her grandparents, the family retainers, and even the dog Wog—come together to form an intricate, elaborate, and colourful pattern. Each piece fits into its appropriate place, and no piece is expendable.

In accomplishing this effect, Rachel Manley proves herself an expert "manager of narrative," to borrow a term V. S. Naipaul uses to describe his function as a writer. The family’s departure from Drumblair, the description of the razing of the house, and the account of Norman Manley’s death become metaphors for the passing of an era in Jamaican history. Similarly metaphorical for the emerging Jamaica is the somewhat confused and unsure condition of the narrator at the end. These effects are all achieved in a lucid, perceptive, and sensitive language, the rhythms of which can do much to convey the essence of Jamaica to readers in Canada and elsewhere.

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MLA: Boxill, Anthony. A Well-Managed Narrative. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 31 July 2014.

This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #164 (Spring 2000), (Atwood, Davis, Klein & Multiculturalism). (pg. 162 - 164)

***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.

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