My father in law does not recommend books lightly or very often, so when he does, you take him a bit seriously, if you know what I mean. This was the thought with which I opened his latest recommendation, A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes. This is a book which subsumes its reader. It does its work rapidly and it is as disorderly as it is delightful. It is easily one of the most remarkable books that I have read. Its power rests on the twin pillars of staggering descriptions and the slightly scary and wholly unsentimental nature of its message.
First for those descriptions. Hughes is seriously good at the pithy, skin touching, tongue tasting descriptions. The novel is set first in Jamaica and then upon the high seas of the Caribbean and is so perfect in its description of that landscape. I used to live in Trinidad and maybe I still miss the hot sweet air and the bewildering lushness; the idea that the land is so fertile that its vegetation might reclaim the space that the buildings stand on at any moment. Unlike the children in the story, I have never been in a hurricane or an earth quake, but I know the feeling of living where the elements are not meek or placid. The extent of the sense of place in A High Wind in Jamaica is astounding and it is worth reading for that reason alone.
But this book is not just one of those “you could almost feel as though you were there...” reads; it is much more memorable than that. It is the story of six children who survive a hurricane in Jamaica and who, on the journey to supposed safety in England, fall into the hands of a band of pirates. They are not the nastiest pirates you ever did see and nor are they great big teddy bears really. The truth is that they are rather down on their luck and are not too sure what to make of it when one of their exploits lands them with six infants to do what they will with.
The children themselves are the core of this novel and they are not virtuous little adults of the Victorian idyll but are savage survival machines. Far from adoring their parents they have startlingly little attachment to them and their love for one another, such as it is, seems far more based on a shared dilemma than on anything more profound. When one of them disappears to a fate unknown, but inevitably guessable, the others forget him with a ruthless and casual cruelty that chills to the bone. Under threat, they see only the make believe, they easily turn on one another and they resort to unexpected acts of violence. But before we get too shocked or too puffed up with righteous indignation, we must pause to wonder how differently adults would behave in the same circumstances: does adulthood civilise the savage in us that much?
The adventure of the children is largely seen through the eyes of one of the older girls. Emily Bas-Thornton is a canny enterprising character, but ultimately she is a child at sea. She detects a soft spot in the pirate Captain and tries to respond to it but really she is as confused as she is intuitive. Is her Captain screaming out from a lifetime of brigandary for some semblance of family life or is he a would-be child molester? Whatever the facts, Richard Hughes will not always sort them out for his reader. This is a book which is about ambiguity and the lack of understanding that exists between adults and children. I could not have been more enraptured.
There are excellent and interesting reviews of this book at Shelf Love and The Mumpsimus. I have featured a picture of my copy of the novel, on the beach and a couple of stills from the 1965 film of the novel starring, of all people, Martin Amis. I feel a book/movie night special coming on.