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In Praise of Love and Children

Written by Sandra Courtman for Mango Season on no date provided

I waited eagerly for this book, nearly a year from first hearing of it. Not nearly as long, however, as Beryl Gilroy waited to see it in print. In Praise of Love and Children was written over thirty years ago and I shudder to think how near it came to seeing the bottom of a black dustbin liner. When I finally got hold of a crisp new copy from Peepal Tree Press, I regarded the washed out cover and the line drawing of the naive smiling little figure and thought 'This looks like a children’s book'. But this novel is far from simplistic. And you will find no stereotypes or PC ciphers. There are sympathetic portraits of men as carers. People are people: damaged, cruel, survivors. I started reading it; four hours later I was still reading and I finished it in one sitting. It is a remarkable book, not least for its unique account of a woman’s experience of that third passage from the West Indies to Britain in the fifties. After the familiar exploits of Selvon’s comic characters in The Lonely Londoners, it is refreshing to find a serious book on a serious point in history, written by a woman.

The story is essentially Melda Hayley’s journey in which she negotiates the very real geographical distance between herself and her scattered family and more importantly, the human distance between them. Throughout the narrative a tension exists between England and Guyana, past and present as Melda struggles to find an identity and a ‘space’ within her extended family. Melda is strangely gifted, growing up as an outsider in a large family in rural Guyana. She is a love-child, the result of a union between her father and the hated ‘other’ woman. For being the consequence of this union she is treated cruelly by her step-mother. She follows her brother Arnie to London, burying a pain which she soon recognises in the abandoned West Indian children she comes across whilst teaching. Melda starts to foster and care for damaged children from the West Indies. She gets results with children so badly misunderstood that no one else can deal with them. Arnie has meanwhile met and married a white German woman, Trudi, who Melda can not perceive as a human being. Trudi is a white mistress, a symbol standing for a colonial tradition which takes away the person that she loves most. Gilroy refuses comfortable oppositions here and explores how Melda and Trudi's relationship is proscribed by history, prejudice, ignorance and jealousy on both sides. It is this triangular relationship between Melda, Trudi and Arnie which is sharply analysed, deeply symbolic and develops to the point where the hatred must break down and make way for other more subtle feelings. Melda and Trudi suffer in different ways but they each provide an example of how pain strangles the ability to love. And in a quite unexpected way they help each other to heal past wounds. Tears might come in the reading but Gilroys irrepressible comic streak breaks in to bring the odd smile along the way too. It is a very rounded book, serious in its content, inspiring in its outcomes and beautifully told. Enjoy!

This is a review of In Praise of Love and Children

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