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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Thursday, June 18, 2015

Why A High Wind in Jamaica is still (though forgotten) a great novel

All told, I think Richard Hughes's A High Wind in Jamaica is an excellent novel; it's too bad it's so forgotten today - or known if at all by the 1965 movie, which I've never seen but from the publicity shots you can find on imdb and elsewhere looks super-cheesey - probably went for all the drama and romance and adventure-story stuff and passed over the darker and weirder parts of the novel. I think it's a forgotten work in part because Hughes didn't create a corpus of similar (even if inferior) novels: there are famous one-off novelists, such as Ralph Ellison or JK Toole for ex.,but there's no doubt a writer's reputation is advanced by writing several novels, especially if we can find a unifying theme or style across the body of work. Hughes was evidently one of those precocious British polymaths, and over the course of a long time he wrote a few other pieces but we don't think of his "work." He also did other things - college professor, inveterate traveler (like many other British polymaths, from DHL to Chatwin). Interestingly, High Wind feels less distant and quaint than many other books of its era (the 1930s) because it was a historical piece in its time: set some 60 years back circa 1870 - so when we read it today, it feels to us, I imagine, similar to the way it felt to its original readers. It's also just a hell of a good story with some great plot twists toward the end - as the children turn up safely in England, are taken in by their parents (it takes quite a while before the "doting" mother asks: Where's John?; it takes not too long before they're shipped off to boarding school), and become the object of a great deal of fascination and speculation. (spoilers) Their captors are brought to England for trial and in a true perversion of justice the adults coax the children witnesses to testify according to script, in other words to lie. The trial hinges on the dead captain of one of the captive ships -  and we know who killed him, but nobody else does - and when the witness breaks down in hysteria the adults completely misunderstand why she's crying - which leads to the unjust execution of 3 (mostly) innocent men. This trial has notes of irony - but I think the meaning is far more profound than simple irony, it's an uncovering of the corruption of the judicial system and the English system of caste and class, no less rigid and predetermined than the Hindi.

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