Surjue, like other characters in his Kingston yard, is struggling for survival when he is persuaded to take part in a robbery by the trickster figure of Flitters. He is arrested, tried and sentenced to the appalling world of a Jamaican colonial prison, full of people like himself whose only desire has been to put bread into their familiesí mouths. Whilst in prison, his woman, Rema, goes mad and Surjue puts his life on the line in trying to escape to see her. But he is by no means the central character and, as Kamau Brathwaite first recognised, this novel has much more in common with the structure of collective jazz improvisation than the linear narratives of conventional fiction. Characters such as Surjue, Zephyr, Rema, the murderous Shag and the incestuous Puss-Jook weave in and out of the narrative, sometimes as solo voices, sometimes as a chorus.
This is a starkly brutal novel of prophetic rage that points to the fact that for the poor and black little had changed since slavery. Imprisonment describes life both inside and outside jail. This dread, prophetic quality is powerfully expressed through the Biblical resonances of Jamaican popular speech, for which Mais has an acute ear. And whilst the novel displays an unflinching and deeply distressing realism, it is also, without doubt, a well-shaped work of art with a genuinely tragic vision.
Published: 30 September 2013