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In Praise of Love and Children

Written by Adele S. Newson for World Literature Today on no date provided

Beryl Gilroy’s novel In Praise of Love and Children is hauntingly familiar yet refreshingly new in its outlook on the immigrant experience in England, racism, and celebration of life and culture. Written some thirty years ago, it is a 'history' that very much needed telling. The novel illuminates the challenges faced by the West Indian immigrant who elects to live in the seat of the empire. Cultural conflicts and the disintegration of the family are but a few of the results of the move. In the end, its style as well as the narrative itself posits the importance of the community above the concerns of the individual, while the novel also champions the welfare of children.

Part bildungsroman, part novel of discovery, and part psychological novel, In Praise is told in the first person by Melda Hayley, who at the age of twenty-five moves to England to further her prospects. Her brother Arnie has been living in London for the past six years at the novel’s start. During the reconstruction period after World War II, Melda encounters stark bigotry, on both the personal and the professional levels. She observes her brother’s relationship with Trudi, a German woman who seeks to erase all features of his past life, his heritage. Of her, Melda muses, 'Trudi was not of the world I knew.' In her quest for meaningful employment she observes that potential employers and colleagues 'knew my race only by gossip and folktales.'

On one level, the story progresses as Melda moves from two teaching positions to a job in a cold house to be the mistress of her own home in the capacity of foster mother. After only six months in London, Melda understands 'how the class to which you belonged fitted you into the Jaws of the system. West Indians, being thought of as foreigners, were condemned always to stand on the fringes. Ma and Pa, who had believed in Queen, Country and Empire, would not have been able to understand that those of us who dared to claim our colonial inheritance had to plead or even grovel for a hearing.'

Interspersed in the primary narrative is the story of Melda’s painful childhood and the space that was hers in the Caribbean. That space is what sustains her in London. She is the product of the father of all the five other children she knows as siblings and of an abused woman who had taken refuge with his family and who dies in child birth. Melda is the object of the ire of the mother of the other children. She and Arnie in fact are but a few months apart in age. She is rescued by Mrs. Penn - her stepmother’s contemporary and local headmistress - who sees in Melda the possibilities that she herself could not realize. The women of the 'yard' are her surrogates and protectors in Guyana, and they also serve to sustain her spiritually in London. Her resolve is their legacy to her. She muses: 'I knew I would be somebody and do something worthwhile in life. I often met people who lived in my mind, people whose touch I felt on my cheek and on my arm. I called them my mind ghosts and was sure that they were my ancestors, whom Auntie Bet so often called up in prayer. My protectors, they brought me ideas, principles and truth. The desire to persevere, and to try things made me able to forgive and accept weakness in others and to resist evil wherever its thorns appeared.'

The women of the yard are her help and her salvation. They teach her 'to love women' and to depend on other women. These women visit her doorstep and talk of the men who have come and gone in their lives, 'and it was usual in the yards for women to rush to the rescue of other women.' Their heroism is extraordinary. Aunt Bet, Ma’s sister, is instrumental in her salvation. Addicted to 'mushroom-powder', Aunt Bet literally carries Ma on her back to a neighboring town to be healed.
Still Melda cannot readily extend the same sisterhood to her sister-in-law Trudi. She believes 'the barrier of colour' to be too complex to bridge the gap between them. Ultimately, Arnie disappears for some twelve years, only to resurface after the death of Ma with Trudi and their children. Arnie’s abandonment of his island family is the height of betrayal and culture clash for Melda. Arnie’s rejection of the island world mystifies his family and threatens Melda’s notions of protection and security. Family, the reader learns in turn, exists 'in praise of love and children and plead[s] with us to ""suffer the little children"".'

Ultimately, Melda is recognized by the Queen for her service to the West Indian community in London. Her love and care/fostering of the immigrant children garner for her the presentation of the Member of the British Empire award from the Queen. To this honor, a now middle-aged Melda responds, 'All I had done was to do the best I could, and behave as Mrs. Penn, Mama Tat and the other women of the yards had taught me.'

Gilroy’s novel hails from the tradition that celebrates community rather than the individual. Traditions are insular in spite of cultural disruptions. This is clearly marked by comparisons of culture throughout the novel. As Melda observes: 'People came to the Caribbean for holidays, but we went nowhere except to family parties, excursions and funerals for ours. Talk and song were holidays to us. We believed, as the old folk had done, that it was better to be bitten by your own bedbugs than those from the beds of others.' In Praise of Love and Children is a celebration of culture, traditions, and change. It is painful in its confrontations while liberating in its veracity to human nature.

This is a review of In Praise of Love and Children

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