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Monday, September 13, 2010

Seriously swash buckling: A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes

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.


  1. I've been meaning to read this ever since I saw it discussed in The Provincial Lady...

  2. Sounds brilliant -- I long to read it! Thanks.

  3. This sounds like such a fun read!! I will look out for it. Great review, thanks.

  4. Afternoon all!

    Simon - well, I haven't read a Provincial Lady so maybe I should do that and you should read A High Wind?! Of the wonder of the book blogosphere...

    Harriet - I think that you would love it as I think you have a real instinct for the exotic in your reading...

    Bloomsbury Bell - it was very fun and absolutely gripping.

    Thanks so much for your visits and comments.


  5. chuckle. . .

    Love your title: "Seriously squash buckling"

  6. I had never heard of this book, but you make it sound like it's an amazing read! I also love the fact that the author lets his readers draw their own conclusions about certain things. I am off to see if I can grab a copy of this book, so thanks for enticing me, Hannah!

  7. This book has been on my parent's shelves for years, but I've never gone near it (maybe because it was by the Dickens and I run screaming from his tortured prose!) - will have to dig it out next time I see them.

  8. Never heard of this book, but I've been wanting to read something set in the Caribbean lately, and this looks perfect.

    >we must pause to wonder how differently adults would behave in the same circumstances: does adulthood civilise the savage in us that much?

    This part made me wonder if the book was a bit like Lord of the Flies...

  9. I adore the Caribbean and especially jamaica, St Lucia and Barbados - lived there for many years which means I'm interested in the culture, people and books on that part of the world. Have indeed heard of said book, but have yet to read.
    A wonderful reminder for me - must purchase it at my next book-store visit;-)

  10. It is indeed, a wonderful book, although I have to admit that I last read it when I was 19, in other words, decades ago! But it has remained with me over the years.
    I've never seen the film, although I did know that Martin Amis (not a favourite writer of mine!) was one of the children in the film.

  11. Ive just read a book along similar lines (about the cruelty of children and adults not understanding) so Ive added this to my wish list. It sounds quite thought provoking

  12. I liked your title of squash buckling! it drew me in to read the review!!! Thank you for this post.

  13. Good evening all and thanks for your visitations and comments...

    @Fred - glad that you like it - it took me a while to dream it up so i am glad that my efforts were not wasted:-)

    @Zibilee - you are welcome... I *think* that you would enjoy it too.

    @Tonia - it is nothing like Dickens - much pithier so there is no need to avoid it for that reason.

    @JaneGS - well, I have not read Lord of the Flies - but I understand that A High Wind is widely regarded as the precursor to that book and the two are often discussed in the same breath.

    @Fashion art and other fancies (what a great name!) - if you have a taste for the tropics then you will enjoy this - there is an enormously strong sense of place in the book. In terms of travel, I have only ever been to Jamaica on the island hopper plane service eg so I didn't even got off the plane - I would love to go there properly some time...

    @Sue Gedge - glad to hear that you have enjoyed it - however long ago it was!

    @Jessica - yes there are some extremely good books on the same theme. If you enjoy them then you may also enjoy "Sisters by a river" by Barbara Comyns which explores similar themes. Equally, any of the Ursula Holden novels which I have reviewed on this blog are also useful from this perspective.

    @Mystica - as I said to Fred, I am pleased that you like it - I thought about it for a while!

    Happy Tuesday evening all,


  14. I read this for the first time a couple of years ago after seeing the film several times when I was younger. I was struck by how different in tone the book was from the film. The book is far more edgy and ambiguous and I was quite disturbed by some of it. Not so much the film. I've made a note of Barbara Comyns and Ursula Holden and will investigate them tomorrow when I'm feeling more awake!

  15. Your review does make it seem like it would be very edgy, but I'm putting it on my Shelfari shelf for further pondering. Thanks!

  16. I read this when I was first committed to reading classics -- another off the ML Top 100 List. I hard a hard time with it, but I wasn't a very seasoned classics reader. I would probably get more out of it if I tried it again.

  17. After this review, I MUST read this one. Must go book hunting!