I had no notion of Richard Hughes’s A High Wind in Jamaica before I read it. I had never even heard of it before I saw it on the Modern Library list, which is unusual in that the Modern Library list is full of known, if unplumbed, quantities. I’ve encountered no reference, read no synopsis, skipped no assignment, endured no cringing moment with the combative, be-sideburned, aesthete of my nightmares. So I was very curious, and after months spent in an (admittedly low-grade) fever of anticipation, when it arrived in its plain brown wrapper I fell upon it, and read it right away.
I want not to resort to the repellent vernacular of the internet meme, but my reaction to the book is difficult to express otherwise, so,
This is a nasty, wicked little book. It’s wonderful.
Maybe everyone knows about this book already, the plot I mean, and I just missed that page in the dictionary of cultural literacy. For those of you who were likewise not hip to the dark magic of this novel, it’s about a group of children on a pirate ship in the Caribbean. Which it makes it sound like a fairy tale, a riff on Peter Pan. When I read the introduction to my copy I thought, “This sounds ludicrous.” And it sort of is ludicrous. But rather than weave a swashbuckler about cutlass-wielding badduns, Richard Hughes made his pirates real men–weak, minor, foolish villains who nonetheless make (sometimes) fairly decent nannies.
A great feature of the book (oddly like To the Lighthouse in this regard), is the almost parenthetical, and thus hugely shocking, treatment of important and horrifying events. So I can’t tell you about specific goings-on. I will tell you that the story opens, titularly, in Jamaica, where things are colonially swampy and humid and decrepit, with excessive foliage and rotting aristocracy and covert racial violence. The fecundity is palpable–the seen-better-days Britishers have five children, and vicious cats abound. And then, through this corrupt Eden a destroying wind blows. The children are sent off to England, and safety.
These pirates! These children! Separately and in concert, they are, sometimes, unbearably cute. The children become friends with the ship’s pig:
They grew very fond of him indeed (especially Emily), and called him their Dear Love, their Only Dear, their Own True Heart, and other names. But he had only two things he ever said. When his back was being scratched he enunciated an occasional soft and happy grunt . . . When a particularly heavy lot of children sat down on him at once, he uttered the faintest ghost of a little moan, as affecting as the wind in a very distant chimney, as if the air in him was being squeezed out through a pin-hole.
One cannot wish for a more comfortable seat than an acquiescent pig.
‘If I was the Queen,’ said Emily, ‘I should most certainly have a pig for a throne.’
‘Perhaps she has,’ suggested Harry.
‘He does like being scratched,’ she added presently in a very sentimental tone, as she rubbed his scurfy back.
The mate was watching:
‘I should think you’d like being scratched, if your skin was in that condition!’
‘Oh how disgusting you are!’ cried Emily, delighted.
But the idea took root:
‘I don’t think I should kiss him quite so much if I was you,’ Emily presently advised Laura, who was lying with her arms tight round his neck and covering his briny snout with kisses from ring to ears.
‘My pet! My love!’ murmured Laura, by way of indirect protest.
The wily mate had foreseen that some estrangement would be necessary, if they were ever to have fresh pork served without salt tears. He intended this to be the thin end of the wedge. But alas! Laura’s mind was as humoursome an instrument to play as the Twenty-three-stringed Lute.
Richard Hughes knew what he was about with this cuteness; in a 1969 New Yorker interview he describes borrowing the various children of his friends (which included Robert Graves, according to the introduction to my copy), for research. “Children are vulnerable, like pirates,” he remarks, and in this novel he exploits their respective vulnerabilities with great tendresse. But the inane, creepily accurate patter of the children, and the farcical Mr. Mom-style antics of the pirates are the ground beneath which hums a constant current of anxiety, a current that flares without warning into terror, disgust, and profound sadness. For every charming vignette–the children’s conflation of “pirate” with “pilot,” for example, or the Captain admonishing them about the precarious state of their drawers–there is an element of horror. Sexuality and perjury and murder. And that’s just the pirates. The responsible adults fail to pass muster, in different ways.
To be sure, there are few ways to interpret kidnapping. No one is inclined to be sympathetic to the vicious pirates who have ensnared the young. But there is something shameful and perverse in the adults’ (the regular adults’, I should say) bloodlust, their fixation on the lascivious details of captivity. Miss Dawson, the refined young woman who takes Emily in hand upon the children’s rescue, presses her for details on their bondage. “She saw that Emily did not want to talk about the horrors she had been through: but considered it far better that she should be made to talk than that she should brood over them in secret.” Young miss imagines the children “Chained, probably, down there in the darkness like blacks, with rats running over them, fed on bread and water.” To divert Emily, she “took her down to her cabin and showed her all her clothes, every single item–it took hours.”
I left A High Wind in Jamaica feeling sad about the great adult poverty of understanding–the gulf between us and our childhood selves and one another, and our fragile grip on reality. It’s not that children are special pure angels, “If we saw the world through their eyes there would be no wars” and that kind of drivel. I read Lord of the Flies. And Hughes’ children at their best are charming rather than lovable, and at their worst they are vile. But this novel does not reassure us that children grow up to be good and noble. In Hughes’ bright, cynical light, the great institution Adulthood is revealed too as a load of rubbish. It’s bracing, actually, his cynicism; it’s a wry and unusual vintage. This novel is not uplifting, but it’s very good.
Meghan O’Rourke is literary editor of Slate and author of Halflife, a book of poems.The most extraordinary book I read this year is Richard Hughes’ A High Wind in Jamaica, originally published in 1929. A peculiar fantasia on the nearly impenetrable and certainly alien world of childhood, the novel is at once highly lyrical and poetic fable and an implicit critique of pat moral systems and the blindnesses of colonialism. It functions almost as a trompe l’oeil, inviting you to see the landscape around you one way, then another. In his excavations of the subterranean shifts in perspective that are so much of anyone’s childhood, Hughes also reminds us of the virtues of whimsy: One of the best passages consists of the author’s attempt to differentiate the inner life of a baby from the inner life of a child – and involves a fabulous encounter with an octopus. What isn’t here is the explanatory language of psychology; what is here is an eccentric vision of humanity so particularized as to be really convincing – almost a Lord of the Flies for grown-ups who didn’t like the original all that much.More from A Year in Reading 2007