Suspended Sentences

Written by Jeremy Taylor for The Caribbean Review of Books on

What complex relationships these four Guyanese writers have with their native land! Not one of them is living in Guyana, but each is haunted by it. Each is trying to remember or to forget, to exorcise or repossess, sometimes both at once. Their alter egos, the many fictional characters in these four books, are trying to do the same: somehow to make sense of Guyana, their place in it, or their memories of it. They share a sense of fracture, and a need for restoration. The famous lines of T.S. Eliot kept coming to mind as I read: “We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.”

The simplest of these texts, Tessa McWatt’s There’s No Place Like . . ., is a story of self-discovery presumably aimed at teenage readers. It is a reworking of the Wizard of Oz story, with Dorothy transformed into an 18-year-old Guyanese girl called Beatrice. She is swept away, not by a tornado, but by a bequest: she must use her money to travel around the world (but must not stop in California, the one place she wants to go, her icon of material fame and fortune).

As she travels, she picks up fellow wanderers looking for courage, love, and wisdom; she is persecuted by a witch-like saleslady for genetically engineered crops (a nice touch), and protected by a kindly flight attendant and a wise African woman. She discovers various home truths: “It would take a lifetime to find love, I think. And maybe it starts with yourself”. Her friends are “not born actors the way she was, trying to escape reality when it proved difficult.” “You have everything you need,” she concludes, “right inside you.”

So at first, Guyana is a place to escape from, as so many have done. But the new perspectives Beatrice develops as she travels give her a changed sense of self and of roots. By the end of her journey, she has discovered unexpected inner resources and feelings, her fixation on California has gone, and she is ready to engage with her homeland. 

Tessa McWatt, Canada-based, has published three previous novels. In this one, the language is mostly flat, closer to Nancy Drew than to any Caribbean 18-year-old I’ve met. Anxious to keep the narrative lively, the author uses emails, letters, postcards, and a journal (Beatrice actually writes “Dear Diary”), as well as straight narrative and interior monologue. But the sense of quest does become stronger and more convincing in the last third of the book, and I began to suspect that Beatrice would have a future writing self-improvement books when she got home.

Jan Lowe Shinebourne is London-based, with two novels to her credit — Timepiece (1986) and The Last English Plantation (1988). The eleven stories contained in the 112 pages of her new book are snapshots of Guyanese in crisis, usually over their feelings for Guyana. A woman lies dying in a London hospital, her head clamouring with names and memories from her Guyanese childhood. Another Guyanese woman in London falls out with a childhood friend because of the different political paths they have taken; “I live with Guyana all the time”, she moans, “I want to stop the memory, to stop remembering, so I can start to live here.” A nationalist harbourmaster steels himself to allow British warships and troops into the Demerara. An elderly teacher who went to England to study music returns home after a breakdown and is terrified of re-entering a world he no longer understands (“only local culture, local music, nothing classical . . . I am foreign now”). 

Lowe is good at these intense moments of despair which may pass by in a few minutes, but which speak volumes about history and pain. A few well-chosen words establish the hollowness of the word “comrade”, or the way a new local elite steps into the shoes of the departing colonial elite at independence.

Mark McWatt’s stories in Suspended Sentences (sub-titled Fictions of Atonement) are longer and more ambitious. He pretends that they are the work of eleven Guyanese youngsters who graduated from school at the time of independence in 1966. After a merry vandalisation of the sports club of the Imperial Bank, the group is given suspended prison sentences on condition that each member writes a short story about Guyana. Suspended Sentences, then, is that collection, four decades later: the group is scattered around the world, two of its members are dead, and only one is still in Guyana.

It’s a nice idea, mildly reminiscent of Midnight’s Children, though McWatt doesn’t manage to make the eleven voices convincingly different, and the chances of eleven high school graduates, however bright, all being such accomplished fiction writers must be practically zero. 

Still, the stories are memorable, with both range and depth. They share a deep feeling for forest and river, for mystery and the supernatural. Deceased Uncle Umberto consorts with a ghostly white lady, a doppelganger called Basil disappears at Baracara Falls, an apparition called Harris (aha!) appears from the past, an escaped bakoo (homunculus) elopes with prim Miss Alma Fordyce into the night sky on her bicycle. 

There are some very human dramas and tragedies here too —?stories of violent repression, of breakdown, of past secrets uncovered. McWatt, representing himself as a member of the group, wraps up with a full-ensemble description of the original 1966 celebration. The “suspended sentences” haunted the group for 35 years, he writes, but that “does not compare in horror to the purgatorial sentence imposed . . . on the independent country of Guyana . . . Over the years the country lurches from one calendrical totem of independent nationhood to another . . . as we continue to bite each other like bugs in a stinking bed where, for years, no warm-blooded body of hope has come to lie.” 

Suspended Sentences is an important, substantial book. The writing is elegant (though “its” is constantly confused with “it’s”), the fiction accomplished, and the narratives moving, not least in their reaching out for atonement.

Like Mark McWatt, Denise Harris is based in Barbados. The daughter of the Caribbean’s most problematic novelist, Guyana’s éminence grise, she has some of her father’s instinct for mystification. People are not who they seem to be, and the boundary between dream and reality is never quite solid. The past is a dark place full of horrors, and the dead and the wronged clamour for revenge. (Even narrative prose cannot be allowed to proceed in a straight line.)

In Harris’s debut novel, Web of Secrets (1996), the suppressed past reached into the present as unconfronted truth, clamouring for recognition both personal and national. In Remembrance of Her takes this idea further, into an even more tangled web. Personal narratives take on a mythic quality that finds echoes in the public history of Guyana. There is a judge, living in a fine house that is no longer his (aha again). He has disposed of his first wife and daughter, and as early as chapter two murders his son. There is a private eye who turns out to be part of the case he is investigating. There is the judge’s maid, who is hiding guilts of her own; her wronged husband lurks outside the judge’s gate. There is an “obeah-woman” of limited competence and ambiguous motive.

The judge’s dead wife, like a puppet master, mystically steers events. She is referred to simply as “the Caul Girl” — not a punning reference to sexual services, but to the caul that covered her eyes at birth. She functions as a spirit of place, trapped in a shadow world, calling to the living for liberation and restitution.

Towards the climax, the private eye takes a larger part in the story, pronouncing on the healing power of truth, the desire to “break the back of the long drawn-out cry”. He concludes that “We need to embrace the world with all its terrors, with our whole being, full trust”, and thereby perhaps “encounter our true selves”. 

Harris has chosen a complex structure for dealing with this version of atonement fiction, and I had the sense that the material was often barely under her control. The first half of the book is dense and over-written, needlessly confusing an already confusing plot (not to mention a confused reader). Harris plays, sometimes irritatingly, with fonts and graphics, nursery rhymes, Biblical references and multiple narrative sources; there are some dubious decisions about how to render Guyanese speech.

But with the novel’s basic themes and concerns there can be no quarrel. It seems to be pretty much agreed among all these authors that in Guyana the suppressed past desperately needs to be brought to light, and that its landscapes and mysteries cry out for atonement, reconnection, and restored respect. 

Suspended Sentences: Fictions of Atonement, by Mark McWatt (Peepal Tree Press, ISBN 1-84523-001-9, 254 pp)

In Remembrance of Her, by Denise Harris (Peepal Tree Press, ISBN 1-900715-99-6, 280 pp)

There’s No Place Like . . ., by Tessa McWatt (Macmillan Caribbean, ISBN 0-333-94615-4, 132 pp)

The Godmother and Other Stories, by Jan Lowe Shinebourne (Peepal Tree Press, ISBN 1-900715-87-2, 116 pp)