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Excavation

Written by Geoffrey Philp for The Caribbean Writer on no date provided

Jean Goulbourne’s Excavation gives a refreshing perspective on a subject that has long troubled the West Indies - the nature of identity in a multiracial society haunted by a history of colonialism. Her story, set in Jamaica, centers on a group of archaeology students: Carla, the protagonist; David, a white American from Chicago; Kwame, an African from Ghana; Akete, a Jamaican Rastafarian; and Professor Milton, an aging teacher who is attracted to Carla. The relationships between these principal characters serve an allegorical function, for gradually Carla becomes a symbol for the island and its troubled past.

The novella opens with a brief description of the characters and from the first chapter we have a glimpse of the book’s many charms, for Goulbourne has a keen eye for telling detail rendered with poetic intensity. Her depiction of the Jamaican countryside is filled with minutiae that reveal the character’s internal state. For example, the reader can share David’s sense of wonder and adventure as the minivan in which they are riding plunges through the ravines, ‘There was something in this wildness that appealed to him, but he also felt what this country needed was taming: the grass, the hedges, the trees and the forests - and the people’ (6). This ‘taming’ also extends to Carla, and David soon becomes attracted to Carla despite the obvious signals that Professor Milton is also falling in love with her. To complete the triangle, Akete, the Rastafarian, becomes her guardian to protect her from the two men, ‘He would hate to see her used by either of the two men - by a womanizer nearly three times her age or a white boy looking for something Exotic’ (49).

The unexpected attention of the two men forces Carla to confront the sexual demons of her past, and her abuse at the hands of an incestuous uncle mirrors the colonial/parental relationship which the story seeks to explore through the use of symbolic characterization: Kwame, the African; Carla, the Creole woman; Akete, the new Jamaican man; and Professor Milton, the sage who tries to keep in balance the conflicting ideas. This method, at times, threatens the believability of the story because characters such as David (Euro-America) become stereotypical and the reader does not get a real sense of a full-bodied character, only a thin representation of a certain point of view. Goulbourne’s narrative skills, however, rescue the story from pedantic noise and we often encounter a world of wonder: ‘The lights punctuating the darkness made Carla think of the peenie wallies and nights at home in the south of the island, close to the coast... [T]hey seemed like brilliant pinpricks against a dark sky’ (5).

Goulbourne’s writing style is stimulating - especially in the portrayal of the island’s landscape - and as she draws the reader into the lives of her characters, we gain a fresh perspective on West Indian culture, history, and politics.

This is a review of Excavation

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