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Timepiece

Written by Fred D’Aguiar for Race Today on no date provided

The title of Janice Shinebourne’s important first novel directs the reader to two notions of time, one personal, the other public. On a personal level it portrays people’s lives over a carefully chosen number of years. Publicly, it is about a historical moment crucial to Guyanese history and politics. Other dualities abound: between town and country, male and female, between generations and rival political ideologies.

Sandra Yansen, the novel’s heroine, grows up in Pheasant, a village in Berbice, with New Amsterdam as its closest town, Sandra’s parents, Helen and Ben, and their friends, Noor, Nurse, Miss K and Zena, are all unforgettable. Her education takes her to New Amsterdam then to Georgetown to work as a trainee reporter. She is plunged into the middle of an ideological battle for control of the newspaper and witnesses the defeat of freedom of the press at the hands of the state. She catches glimpses of Guyanese society of the early 60’s, has one abortive and one lasting courtship and returns in the end to Pheasant to nurse her dying mother and eventually bury both her parents.

The novel’s structure widens this straightforward narrative. A prelude shows a mature Sandra returning to a deserted Pheasant. The big estate around which Pheasants’s life revolved is overrun with weeds, the cottages too. All the people Sandra is able to recall are forgotten.
When the novel opens with a bustling village there is irony and tension because it is underpinned with this knowledge of its dramatic decay. The surrendering of Pheasant to the bush is convincing because the jungle is presented on the fringes of village life.

One of the central dualities of the novel is that of the differing world view of town and country people. A similar duality is brought to the surface when David Petrie, a Trinidadian, visits Pheasant. He sees nothing positive in the place, just silence, flat country and jungle. Sandra by contrast, born and bred there, is cued into its teeming life. The sharp evocation of the landscape, internalised in her, becomes for the reader a rich sensual experience.

In Georgetown there is complacency and cynicism, an atrophied notion of the past and a wild optimism about the future. The inhabitants suffer from self-doubt, paranoia, and 'no philosophy'. If Guyana, according to one of the Pheasant people, T, is two countries, rural and urban, and Georgetown people see 'Guiana as two countries too: the high colour ""fair-skin"" middle class and swarthy or ""dark"" working-class', then a third duality exists, this time between the people in terms of sex. The relationship between Son Young and Sandra provides the arena for an exploration, in depth, of the relationship between the sexes. Men assume a chauvinistic superiority over women. Sandra and Son get beyond this after an initial battle. They clear the debris and mystery between the sexes in a way which the fiction the young men read never manages to do though it is feminist (Simone de Beauvoir) and existentialist (Camus).

There is remarkable affinity between the authorial voice and the heroine’s. Often the author’s powerful grasp of the landscape, her ability to imagine it as a sensual experience is mirrored by Sandra’s way of seeing and remembering. All the senses are at work, creating a place the author knows intimately.

Timepiece sets out to put right a rhetorical question it poses at the end of its pages:

'So what of Ben? Was there no dirge that could mourn his death, no song celebrate the life he had invested in this stranded and exploited village?'

Timepiece itself does that. The epigraph to the novel is further testimony to these unsung lives:

For the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life and rest in unvisited tombs. (George Eliot, Middlemarch)

When the women of Pheasant came to Helen’s house at night to talk 'long past midnight', the girl they would shoo away when as a child she wanted to listen, saying they were talking 'big people story' could very well be the adult imagination at work shedding light on their lives, thereby recovering a valuable past for posterity and enriching our lives in the process.

This is a review of Timepiece

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