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Marking Time

Written by Jim Hannan for World Literature Today, Vol. 74:2 on no date provided

As poet, author of short stories, and editor of anthologies of poetry (Hinterland) and fiction (The Penguin Book of Caribbean Short Stories), E. A. Markham has contributed handsomely to anglophone Caribbean literature and helped ensure the well-being of this writing by making it widely available. With his excellent recent travel book A Papua New Guinea Sojourn (1998; see WLT 73:1, p. 198) and Marking Time, his first novel, Markham demonstrates a laudable wider range of talents, and shows himself to possess an inquisitive, keenly perceptive, and jocular mind. Marking Time succeeds in part because of its broad perspective not only on Caribbean affairs but on contemporary English manners and society. Readers of this book will undoubtedly hope that Markham will publish another novel soon.

In Marking Time Markham moves erratically through time and place in the first-person narrative of Pewter Stapleton, middle-aged playwright, editor, traveler, teacher, friend, lover (although Stapleton more discreetly says 'partner'), son, and brother. Markham offers astute observations on aging, relationships, art, success and failure, and the precarious condition of the academy in an era of corporatization and cost-cutting. He deftly raises social issues - chiefly racism and sexism, but also environmental degradation and institutional ineptitude and malevolence - yet eschews polemic or vitriol, taking care that social insight does not overwhelm the human, individual sensibility represented by Stapleton. One of Markham’s finest achievements may be that he intrepidly balances an empathic sensibility with a probing social conscience.

Pewter Stapleton, who teaches creative writing in a mediocre English university and has been a house-builder in France, an English language instructor in Germany, and a theater director in the Caribbean, candidly discloses his own imperfections. Stapleton fails frequently to satisfy his closest intimates. His family cannot understand his itinerant life, his failure to ground himself with wife, children, house, and steady job. His partner Lee finds inadequate what she calls his sporadic presence and commitment. Stapleton himself remarks, 'I had a homing instinct to be far away when emotional engagement beckoned.' While Stapleton knows that, as a West Indian immigrant, he can claim a currently popular transience - 'How can you have lived in a place for so long and not be rooted, settled?' - he wisely refuses to let social conditions explain personal limitations.

For readers, Stapleton distinguishes himself by his wit, empathy, and introspection. His nimble mind, often self-deprecating - 'Once, an optician said to me, ‘You’re short sighted,’ and I thought: my life in a sentence' - regularly embraces alternative points of view. If Stapleton transgresses - writing a play about a partner other than Lee, for example - he worries about the feelings of the transgressed. Stapleton’s introspection poignantly delineates this life lived between artistic aspirations, mundane academic chores, and incomplete personal relationships. Of a student whose paper he has leniently marked, Stapleton thinks: 'Natalie I have... shielded you from your failure to imagine. 'Get out of my life and let me get on with my Art; fulfill my destiny as a little-known figure.' In this manner, Markham acutely and unostentatiously narrates one man’s efforts to find a suitable place and time for a life removed from, yet deeply engaged with, the people and events around him.

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