The Coral Rooms

Written by Keith Jardim for Trinidad Guardian on

The Coral Rooms' protagonist, wealthy Percival Veer, PR man at the Federal Bank of Charouga, is unsettled. He keeps having a dream of caves, caves of limestone interlaced with streams of the purest water in which he played as a boy. The more he dreams, the more appalled Percy becomes at how he attained his prosperous position at the Federal Bank, and how his colleagues got their positions. He develops an obsessive urge to explore the dark network of passages beneath the sunlit landscape of Charouga - an island similar to Kellman’s Barbados.

Percy’s wife, Materia (whom Kellman uses to represent the influence of unchecked Christianity and capitalism), is both victim and perpetuator of these forces. She is typical of the many young women in the region today whose ambitions are thwarted by the limitations of a male-dominated society. Her upper-class status is immediately threatened when Percy finally announces he must leave his job to explore the caves, really an examination of his consciousness, his conscience, and the history of the Caribbean:

'Percy was disappointed when he reached Springlands and saw that there was not even an echo of old civilisation here. Unlike Greenhead, Springlands was developed, the highway wide and widening. On one side, of the road there was a livestock station and, opposite that, an open meadow on which scores of black-belly sheep were grazing. They oozed and mingled into each other like moving sand. Springlands, like so many other places in the island, had suffered the fate of historical amnesia. These Crown lands had been levelled and valuable pre-Columbian artifacts destroyed when the British had come in the seventeenth century and created a plantation economy based on the exploitation of African slave labour. The current Black ruling class of independent Charouga, anxious to prove themselves by thoughtless erection of concrete monsters, had done the rest.'

Percy’s experience in the caves is intense, and his encounter with Cane-Arrow - a man who has returned to an Amerindian way of existence near the caves - changes him irrevocably, almost incredibly. Percy’s visions into Charouga’s (the Caribbean’s) history around the time of European arrival and his complete realisation of what he has done and not done so far with his life, cause him to embrace Cane-Arrow’s way of life. Soon, he is hirsute, unrecognisable and welcomes the announcement of his death in Charouga’s daily newspaper as a kind of salvation.

But Materia is waiting for him; and, in what’s an unusual twist in the story, perhaps an unconvincing one, she is re-presented as someone who Percy loves, or is trying to love. Which seems a bit unnatural when we recall their relationship of convenience shown earlier in the novel.
The Coral Rooms, however, is more than an examination of one man’s guilt about wealth and marriage wrongfully made. In detailing the landscape of Charouga, Kellman’s talent stirs us to contemplate, by the sheer power of its abundant, beautiful and provoking descriptions, the link we once all had to the land. Our history, even our guidance, he could be saying, is written on the landscape, in the environment. Consider this paragraph:

'He saw a leaf falling from a mahogany tree, a brown leaf, brown like his skin, propellering down in slow motion. Then several leaves flurried down like a battalion of wood doves. Most landed on the dry part of the sand, only one or two going over the waterline to be swept out in the back-wash.'

Anthony Kellman’s love of language (he’s also a poet), and his skill to evoke the Caribbean environment through all the senses, combine to make his first novel a distinctive work. The prose is delightful, soothing and thought-provoking. There is a certain mood of mystery in this work that prompts you to make comparisons with John Fowles's The Magus. It prompts you to wonder about how the story will end: with tantalising foreboding Kellman keeps you guessing. But one is made to wonder about much more: brave subjects in these irrationally religious times like the meaning of life, and where mankind went wrong in history.

For the most part The Coral Rooms is an ambitious, successful look at what we have made of ourselves in the Caribbean through base economics and its religious connections. It is to Kellman’s great credit that the questions raised in relation to Percy Veer and Charouga strike us with equal force as questions about man in the world.