This is the final instalment in a quartet of novels that explores the lives of the small St Lucian middle class in the years around independence. In it the reader re-encounters the brothers, Peter and Paul Breville. Peter, after years abroad, has resumed his marriage with his long abandoned wife Phyllis (the subject of Another Country), and is now working as a lecturer in Jamaica. His brother Paul remains in St Lucia, disgraced and sacked from professional employment by his refusal to marry his pregnant girlfriend. He has acquired a reputation for madness, though whether this is a contrived mask or an actual breakdown is left uncertain.
J—, Black Bam and the Masqueraders intercuts Paul’s confessional letters to Peter with the narrative of Peter’s marital relationship with Phyllis, his affairs and descent into despair, drunkenness and domestic violence. In the contrast between Paul’s self-lacerating honesty and Peter’s self-deceptions, St Omer offers a bracingly bleak portrayal of a middle class beset with hypocrisies over race, sexism and class privilege. If sanity is at some level marked by truthful perceptions, St Omer invites us to question which of the brothers is actually sane.
There is no Caribbean novelist who with greater economy or elegance exposes the realities behind the masks people wear or the gaps between postcolonial rhetoric and the actuality of minds that remain deeply colonised. Though first published in 1972, St Omer’s novel has lost none of its uncomfortable truth-telling power.