- H. Nigel Thomas (Author)
Return to Arcadia. TSAR Publications (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Marie-Célie Agnant (Author) and Zilpha Ellis (Translator)
The Book of Emma. Insomniac Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Shelley Hulan
“I must tell you a few words about a time that is supposed to be in the past and that is called the old days.” So begins the story that Emma, the young Caribbean protagonist of The Book of Emma, relates to Flore, the interpreter who translates her Creole French in a Montreal psychiatric hospital. Flore’s task is to draw from the patient the details of her infant daughter’s murder, but the trail of blood and suffering in Emma’s narrative begins well before that tragedy and in places far from the hospital ward.
Western narrative practices often attempt to turn lost Eden, innocence, and childhood into reflective opportunities, with the remembering subject using the past to heal herself and perhaps her community. In The Book of Emma and Return to Arcadia, the protagonists do not have access to a few parts of the past and deliberately withhold others from their listeners. Yet missing events in these novels only emphasize the characters’ predicament as bodily crucibles overflowing with personal, ancestral, and historical memory. Their pasts extend backwards to the horrors of the middle passage, twisting through the slavery and plantation years that mingled races and engendered hatreds that render the protagonist-narrators of these two texts literally strangers in their own skins.
For Emma, this interminable past is an inescapable hell that contaminates the entire present. It supplies no explanations and no chances for healing, only a dismal map of violation retraced on the bodies of every generation of women in her family. In her story, childbearing—her own, her mother’s, and her grandmother’s—supplies the controlling metaphor for a racism perpetuated by centuries of rape and exploitation. The blue-black colour of Emma’s skin virtually guarantees her light-skinned mother’s rejection the moment she comes into the world. That rejection, and the abuses her foremothers suffered, may offer a context for her baby’s death. Understanding that context would require a comprehensive history of slavery, and Emma spends years trying to complete that gargantuan project in the form of a doctoral dissertation on the West Indies slave trade. What she finds in so doing is an endless global recurrence of the misery she experienced first-hand as a child, and that she had hoped higher education would help her escape.
Readers may not agree that Emma’s narrative is as chaotic as Flore thinks it is. They may see it instead as much bigger than its teller, who is herself painfully conscious of its actual dimensions. The Book of Emma is an epic story in the abbreviated form of a novel that ultimately underlines not a grand sweep of history but the crushing burden of its repetitions.
That burden is no lighter in Return to Arcadia, which like The Book of Emma is set for significant periods in the precincts of a Montreal psychiatric ward. It opens with the partial return of the inmate narrator’s memory; after the first few pages, the amnesia that has kept Joshua Éclair in the hospital has all but vanished. His main task is the interpretation of his experience, not its recovery. The colour of his skin determines his identity on his Caribbean island home as much as Emma’s does hers, though in Joshua’s case this is because he passes for white, a circumstance that ensures an upbringing and education denied his half-sister Bita. His inheritance is both racial—a white plantocrat is his biological father, a black fieldworker his birth mother—and material, as he eventually inherits his father’s estate. The rare privileges that wealth brings him enhance rather than dilute his awareness of power as a force that implicates everyone, including him, in a seemingly endless perpetration of injustice and cruelty. If his status in the island’s racial and economic hierarchies renders him immune to some taunts, it makes him horribly vulnerable in others.
Return to Arcadia is almost Dickensian in its emphasis on redemption, as Joshua, true to his surname, relives his past in a search for enlightenment. This is not to suggest that the resolutions with which the text ends neatly tie up all the narrative threads. Still, what surprises most about this contemporary novel is how extensive its resolution is. At times Joshua makes statements that would not be out of place in a Social Gospel novel. “Unaided,” he observes at one point, “so few of us can be idealists; so few can shed their communal clothes”; at the same time, he longs to achieve a decolonized ideal of his own.
Homi Bhabha suggests that the relations between the traumas of a personal past and those that characterize world history in the modern era frequently underpin the appearance of the unhomely in postcolonial literatures. Emma and Joshua’s unremitting awareness that so much violent history is indelibly inscribed in and on their bodies constantly dislocates them in the world even as their memories return them in mind and spirit to the places of their childhood. Not surprisingly, their bodies prove to be lingering sources of uncanny uncertainty in the stories they tell.
- BC Before the Logo by Charles Dawson
Books reviewed: Downriver Drift by Tim Bowling and The Paperboy's Winter by Tim Bowling
- May She Marry a Ghost by Reece Steinberg
Books reviewed: Blackstrap Hawco by Kenneth J. Harvey
- Start to Finish by Joan Barfoot
Books reviewed: Exit Lines by Joan Barfoot and The Origin of Species by Nino Ricci
- Ladies First by Karen Crossley
Books reviewed: The Factory Voice by Jeanette Lynes and The Wife's Tale by Lori Lansens
- Pathway of the Son by W. H. New
Books reviewed: Distance by Jack Hodgins
MLA: Hulan, Shelley. Total Recall. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 10 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #200 (Spring 2009), Strategic Nationalisms. (pg. 122 - 123)
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