Because they act out parts in a conflict against a backdrop whose main motif is left out, the island characters partake of the general unreality. Andrew Simpson flits through like a Worrell stroke, a bat flashing sunlight her, and there-on the beach with Mona, facing Stanhope across a gulf, the new class come to power, impatient with the old. But Andrew Simpson’s last action remains inexplicable. We are supposed to believe that his act of defiance, his attempt to kill Josiah falls into the pattern that so many wished on Lee Harvey Oswald- the small beleaguered remnant of individualism, making his desperate lonely bid for immortality. When, in fact, Andrew Simpson, like Lee Harvey Oswald, can only be understood in the context of the ‘forces’ or ‘group interests’ which they either represent or are paid to represent.
The journalist heroine, clever, intellectual, and her cool muted love affair with Joel Sterning, married, intellectual, Jewish and liberal is a bid of Mr. Abrahams to idealize the coloured woman. In compensation for the single stereotype as the hot passionate exotic temptress which is the only one before this to permit coloured women characters. But the truth of Martha Lee escapes Mr. Abrahams and his readers. The relationship of Martha and her deaf and dumb child just does not come off, although one senses that Mr. Abrahams is being most sincere. The woman who runs the Sweet Water Home for retarded children could have been lifted from the less happy moments of Mr. John Hearne’s Cayuna. This woman belongs to that mythical aristocracy of which Mr. Hearne is fond but who never existed. In Jamaica that is. The aristocracy that never was, lived in England, built stately mansions and dabbled in art and culture. The attorneys and the bookkeepers and the Anglican parsons and lawyers and judges and merchants that remained, shared in the general outsidership peculiar to Caribbean society. What is admirable about them is not their ‘aristocratic disdain’ hut the tenacity of their survival. Like the so-called flowers of the Southern American wishful aristocracy, the Caribbean ‘white class’ had the toughness and the hardiness of a ramgoat rose. The woman who runs the Sweet Water Home is most likely an interesting character. But her motives for running the home are, one expects, quite different from the Hollywoodish reasons that she and Mr. Abrahams give for her doing so.
The interest of this woman, of this class lies in her marginality to the very society of which she is a part. Before Crown Colony Government in Jamaica, her class was involved in the society. They helped to commit the wrongs, to create the wealth, to do what was right. When the House of Assembly was taken away, and the Crown Colony Government imposed they lived on in a society in which they had become marginal. They enjoyed the privileges of a society whilst the responsibility had been taken away. Taken away in what they considered to be the light of their own interests. So they acquiesced in their marginal status. So they remained neither Jamaican nor English stranded between two worlds. They fought independence for Jamaica or welcomed it with reservations. Yet it is only through independence that they can work their passage back to being Jamaican. The presence of the woman at the Sweet Water Home is due really to that. There is a whole exciting novel waiting for Mr. Abrahams in that.
For it is in his portrayal of marginal characters that Mr. Abrahams comes into his own. That is when he sees them consciously as being marginal. He gives a sensitive and well observed study of the relationship between Clara, his really successful character, and her husband Joel Sterning. Clara is of a rich Jamaican Jewish family. The family, her father and brothers control much of the business life of the island. And exercise the power that goes with their wealth. Clara conceals with some desperation her few drops of black blood and uses the family influence to see that this offence is omitted from the general memory of the island. She is married to the man who is the lover of coloured journalist Martha Lee. Joel Sterning is European in an ineffectual protest against the brute reality of the kind of power that his wife’s family (and his wife) wields. Joel feels that he has sold his soul to his wife’s family business. And here Mr. Abrahams is very good indeed. He manages to suggest that if Joel had not made such a sale of his soul there is very little else he would have been able to do with it. For the sale gives him all this and heaven, too. The right to enjoy the automatic power of the rich and influential in the island society. And to feel guilty and self-righteous about it.
Clara knows her husband and sees herself and her family through his eyes. She loves him. And her love is made real. The physical sensuous aspect of her relation to her husband is well done. And one feels for her more than for anyone else something of the pity of it. Even though she gets her husband back one feels that her relationship to both husband and her society must remain a marginal one. For the limitations to self fulfilment put on such women in societies like ours are very real. She is imprisoned by attitudes and assumptions of the past. She and her family have been the margin gatherers down the generations in which power belonged to the white and the few. Now that power is being passed on to the masses, the black masses, their liberation poses a threat to her. She is frightened by their sheer physical mass as they press in on the motor car in which she and her ancestors had gone along their gilded and encapsulated way. The irony of course is that it is in the new society where she too will have to be responsible for what happens that her capacity will be able to explore itself. Whether she can make the changeover is left in doubt. The point is that she has begun to ask the right questions: ‘why is it that here on this island wealth turns people rotten, it doesn’t everywhere else you know.’ And she too, like Mr. Abrahams, knows that the answer cannot be found nor the solution worked out in the vague liberalism of her husband. She too is irritated with the inadequacy and exploded bombast of the Liberal creed even while she loves the man who clings on to it in order to avoid her painful but hopeful coming to grips with the new reality.
Both these characters are successful precisely because they are, like Mr. Abrahams, still marginal to the Caribbean scene. And because the business of being marginal is such an important factor in our Caribbean scene, one suspects that if Mr. Abrahams had decided to focus his vision of the island society through Clara and Joel’s eyes, he would have written a very good novel indeed. For Clara and to a lesser extent Joel, are the real people of the book. And the portrayal of their marginality is the original contribution of Mr. Abrahams’ novel
THIS ISLAND NOW is an Instant novel-now coffee powder blend, easily digestible. And forgettable. Except for Clara. There the stubborn tang of real coffee, gritty, bitter is powerful and tart to the tongue.