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In Praise of Love and Children

Written by Jeremy Poynting for n/a on no date provided

(This talk was given at a ceremony to award Dr Gilroy for her services to Caribbean women's writing.)

At this event to celebrate the achievements of Dr Beryl Gilroy I was asked to speak on her recent fiction. There is a good reason for this. At the time of the conference, as her publisher, I am the only person, apart of course from the author, to have had the chance to read all her three new books in their published form. There is a good reason for this. The weekend before setting off for Miami, the directors of Peepal Tree Press and their respective partners were still collating and binding the books.

I won’t introduce Beryl’s new books as the crowning achievements of her career, because I’m sure that Beryl has many more books with which to delight us. They are, though, magnificent additions to the important body of her work. The three books launched at this conference are all very different, though as well as displaying Beryl Gilroy’s breadth as a writer, they all show certain common values and qualities which are integral to her work and its importance.

Gather the Faces is a very warm, very funny book, a love story, conducted mainly through the letters of the two main characters. At the heart of the novel is the voice of Marvella Payne, a cosseted twenty-seven years old secretary who lives with her Guyanese family in London and has sworn her pre-marital virginity to her church and fears that she will 'stay on the shelf', as her formidable aunts describe that state. Then there is her ‘young man’, Ansel McKay, loving, sincere but rather old-fashioned, who lives in Guyana. It is a richly comic book which, through its little touches of ironic tartness, presents an affectionately drawn set of characters in a way which is wholly uncloying. Gather the Faces has many wise things to say about female/male relationships, love and about being a woman.

In Praise of Love and Children is a story with some harsher notes, about the scatteration of black people across the world, about confronting racism in 1950s and 60s Britain and, above all, for the narrating main character, Melda Hayley, about coming to terms with her psychologically and physically abused childhood. But it is also about the capacity of people to change, to repair themselves and to draw on the strengths - even just in memory - of the women’s culture of the Afro-Guyanese village yards.

Inkle and Yarico, Beryl Gilroy’s second historical novel, is a work of quite astonishing imagination. From only the slightest of historical hints, the novel invents the inner life and experiences of Thomas Inkle, an eighteenth century adventurer to the Caribbean, who is shipwrecked, survives alone of his companions and is taken as an obliging and exotic husband by Yarico, a Carib woman. When I read this novel for the first time, (and on each occasion afterwards), I’d stop and scratch my head and wonder, 'Where is this coming from?' If you read this novel you will recognise that you are in the presence of writing that is inspired in the original sense of that word. It is a novel of strange beauty, of moments of intense horror, but also of the humour that runs through all Beryl Gilroy’s work.

These then are three very different books, but they share some of the qualities and characteristics which makes Beryl Gilroy’s work so important for us to have. Firstly, we should celebrate Beryl Gilroy as a writer who is a serious, or should one say, 'wicked' humorist. It is about time she was recognised as such and that comedy was not the preserve of male Caribbean writers such as early Naipaul or Sam Selvon. Here is an episode from Gather the Faces in which Marvella puts down the aptly named Carlton Springle, a wolf in church deacon’s clothing:

'I went to the cinema with Carlton Springle a couple of times. What a persistent pest the trainee deacon turned out to be! He chose the darkest corners of the cinema in order to prove his manhood. Accepting his date gave him, or so he thought, a season ticket to my person. I was furious at his prowling hands and eventually walked out and went home. A tentative, half-hearted apology, and he was back. Grinning from ear to ear and cooing like a turtle dove hell-bent on mating, he said, ""Don’t frighten, Marvella. Don’t frighten. I’ll use a condom. After three dates, it’s time.""
'""Look you, mudhead. Don’t you understand anything? You could use a golden condom with a £50 note on it and it would never be time for me and you. You two-penny dump! You come on like A High Wind in Jamaica!"" (I had been reading that book.)
'That clarified our position. He ignored me thereafter. I stayed home, growing old with my family…' (p.11)

The humour in Beryl Gilroy’s novels is one that takes delight in textual play, but it is always rooted in an underlying seriousness about characters and their predicaments. It is sometimes a humour which, as in Inkle and Yarico, is laughter in the dark, gallows humour in the face of dread, a rich seam of which surfaces even amidst the descriptions of the cruelties of slave society in the second half of that novel. In In Praise of Love and Children, we see the evolution of that kind of humour as an intrinsic Caribbean survival mechanism.

This daring to laugh in the face of darkness is related to the second quality I want to call attention to in Beryl Gilroy’s work. This is its refusal to give up on hope. She writes about deep despair, about pain and suffering, but her novels always show the possibility open to her characters for change and gaining new perspectives on their lives. It is never an easy optimism and never one which is just given. Thomas Inkle, for instance, refuses to accept the opportunity of moral choice and he pays for this in the maiming of his spirit.

Thirdly there is the way in which Beryl Gilroy’s novels enact a highly pertinent interplay between the necessity for individual self-realisation and the need for being part of wider, mutually supporting collectivities, whether the family, the yards of rural Guyana or the Black churches. It is significant, but sadly unsurprising, that this sense of collective web does not include the wider British society. Again, in all her novels, Beryl Gilroy shows that both individual self-realisation and the maintenance of the collective web always have to be worked for. Indeed, whilst her novels never preach, there is always implicit in them the assumption that people have a moral duty to become what they are capable of becoming, even if that involves a risk, as it does for Marvella in Gather the Faces.

The next quality I think is important in her work is the way in which whilst the novels don’t dodge any of the issues of women’s or black people’s oppression, their perspectives never become trapped in the givenness of past history. It is more than this. Beryl Gilroy’s portrayal of her characters’ experiences always enlarges our conception of what it means to be human, because whilst her characters are located in the specifics of race and gender, they have a universal, human depth. There is celebration too, of resources for survival and renewal that are part of African, Caribbean and African-Caribbean women’s culture.

Above all, as a reader, I want to share my enjoyment of the texture of these books. Beryl Gilroy is a writerly writer whose choice of words, phrases, images, whose variety of rhythmic structure - plain when that is what is needed, back-chat smart when called for, and poetic when the occasion demands - constantly delights, constantly makes one say: this is a writer. She writes in a way which brings everyday occasions vividly to life, and also, sometimes, in a way which sends shivers down one’s spine. Here is the description of the death of Chief Tomo in Inkle and Yarico. Chief Tomo is an African who has lived among the Caribs almost all his adult life, who has become Carib (a true creole in a way that Thomas Inkle’s racism prevents him from becoming) but who has never forgotten Africa.

'As time passed the lively spirit in Chief Tomo died and at night his sadness was expressed in melancholy howling. Then one morning, after many weeks, he slowly, painfully managed to stand. Trembling at the knees, clutching a hard fist over his stick, while tears met the dribble from the corner of his mouth, he started on another day’s long road. Shivering in the gentle breeze, he took the path to the woods without a backward glance. Yarico calmly explained. ‘The spirits have come. It is his death day. He hears the voices of his ancestors.’
We all watched him go but no one mourned except to say, ‘A man lives long who lives a thousand moons. Yet half is sleep and half old age. The darkness closes up the path.’
The next day a search party went out to find his bones. They found nothing for he had become an eagle and flown strongly and merrily back to his home in Africa.' (p. 77)

The combination of hard realism (the dribble from the corner of the mouth), the biblical cadence of ‘Yet half is sleep and half old age. The darkness closes up the path’ and the surprising rightness of the adverb ‘merrily’ in the context of an eagle and the magical flight back to Africa is the work of a powerful artist and but one example from many one can find in Beryl Gilroy’s work.

Beryl Gilroy’s is a style that is both personal and collective. Anyone who has got to know Beryl will recognise elements of that voice - its warmth, its humour, its provocative directness - though in each of the novels she creates an ‘I’ narrator whose tone of voice is quite, quite different. It is also a collective style in that it is steeped in the richness of Caribbean language use: of Biblical resonances, folk-sayings and a sheer love of the sound of words.

This is not intended as an academic’s analytical paper, but a publisher’s enthusiasm for books that Peepal Tree is proud to have published. I feel especially privileged to be able to say these few words as part of the ceremony that so rightly honours the achievements of a truly outstanding writer.

This is a review of In Praise of Love and Children

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