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One Day, One Day, Congotay

£12.99

Author(s)
Merle Hodge
ISBN
9781845235246
Pages
300
Price
£12.99
Classification
Novel
Setting
Trinidad and Tobago, Imaginary Caribbean
Date published
7 Oct 2021

Merle Hodge’s rare achievement is to create a dynamic work of fiction around the life of a woman who is unquestionably good: Gwynneth Cuffie, schoolteacher, lover of children and music, and pillar of her small semi-rural community.  The novel shares her adult life through the long, hard years of colonialism on the Caribbean island of Cayeri in the first half of the 20th century. Within Gwynneth’s family are all the faultlines of the Cayerian world. She, with sister Viola and younger brother, Roy, are the children of ill-sorted parents, a marriage wrought from a surge of youthful sexual attraction, but thereafter of two Black lives headed in different directions. Her Catholic schoolmaster father is desperate for respectability at the cost of denying everything about himself and his past in the impoverished world of the yards; her mother, a seamstress, is a stalwart of the Spiritual Baptist church, then banned by the authorities as a threat to colonial order. She is the one person that headmaster Cuffie dare not try to control. But when Gwynneth becomes deeply and tragically involved in the anti-colonial struggle, there grows an insuperable breach between father and daughter.

Gwynneth’s triumph is to build treaty between the world of colonial education, and the world of Mumma’s Spiritual Baptist village where Africa -- feared and hated by Puppa and the aspiring middle classes -- remains a very real and revivifying presence. It is from the rhythms of Africa that the local youth, whom Teacher Gwynnie assiduously supports, develop the iron bands that bring modernity to local music and grow into the national culture of steelband.

The tensions within the Cuffie family continue through the generations – Roy, the apple of his father’s eye, alumnus of an elite college that has taught him to be ashamed of his race, is in dramatic conflict with his sisters. But Merle Hodge offers another vision of family that has little to do with biology, and everything to do with love. This is the family that gathers on the Cuffie sisters’ gallery: Ollie and Gaston, the two men with whom the sisters have deep friendships, but from whom they maintain their independence; neighbours Marjorie and Lennox (himself a child Marjorie has taken in) and Sonny, the child of Mumma’s carer, Monica, who has left him in the sisters’ capable hands to pursue her opportunities in the USA. It is Sonny who is Gwynneth’s true life work, the child who promises to hold the future to account.

This is a novel whose form is true to its meaning, a book that balances linear narrative with a structure that peels away the layers of time in a way that shows the constant interpenetration of past, present and future. Its subject is life, tragic, comic but always in struggle for better must come. It revisits and revisions the colonial world from a womanist perspective. It is a novel, like George Elliot’s Middlemarch that celebrates the small, hidden lives that make the world a better place. Like any richly documented historical novel, it has much to say, by implication, about the present.

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Merle Hodge

Merle Hodge is a Trinidadian novelist and literary critic. Her 1970 novel Crick Crack, Monkey is a classic of West Indian literature, and Hodge is acknowledged as the first black Caribbean woman to have published a major work of fiction.

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