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Timepiece

Written by Elaine Savory Fido for JWIL Journal of West Indian Literature on no date provided

This is a first novel, by a writer who came to our attention with the inclusion of her short story 'The Bridge' in Ken Ramchand’s collection Best West Indian Stories (1982). Reviewing a first novel is a special critical act, because it is clearly dangerous to be too definitive or negative about an emerging talent: the very effort required to produce a piece of full-length fiction is noteworthy, and this particular novel is good enough to warrant a strong hope that there may be some more from Janice Shinebourne. Also I feel particularly pleased to see a woman writer from Guyana, albeit she has become a writer of full-length fiction whilst living outside the region. Writers like Jamaica Kincaid, who migrated to the US from Antigua, or Paule Marshall and Audre Lorde who were born in the US as children of families who had migrated from the islands, similarly support the idea that full-length fiction by women comes more often from living in a country with a strongly established literary tradition, like the USA or Britain, although some writers like Marion Patrick Jones or Erna Brodber have succeeded in finishing novels in the Caribbean.

Shinebourne’s vision of Guyana in the troubled time of 1965 (largely but not exclusively Georgetown) is one of strong emphasis on the female experience. Her heroine, Sandra, is followed from her home in Berbice to her first job as a reporter on a Georgetown newspaper and then home again to attend her mother as she dies. The novel moves between two different worlds, the female-dominated rural community and the male-centred urban world of work on a newspaper. Sandra’s grandmother, Sarah, and her mother, Helen, are part of a matriarchal society which includes other strong women, like Noor, Nurse Nathaniel and Miss K, and which gives the young woman advice. Miss K says 'Trust no man, whether he be your husband or whosoever. Man is no good'. When Sandra goes to Georgetown with Sarah, she is identified as Sarah’s granddaughter, 'one of the Lau women', by people there. Later, she lives with a single and powerful relative of her father’s in
Georgetown, Daphne, and her domestic help, Amy, both of whom are tough women, surviving on their own.

But it is in the handling of these two worlds that the novel becomes structurally a little confused. We first perceive Sandra as a 'stranger' coming into Pheasant, the village of her childhood, and discovering, rather as Jean Rhys discovered in revisiting her childhood home of Dominica, that things have changed. Then the novel goes back in time to Sandra’s move into adult life through her first job in the city. Clearly part of Shinebourne’s intention is to explore the world of women as opposed to the world of men and some of the best insights in the novel seem to me to come from this refreshing revisioning of familiar aspects of recent Guyanese history, such as the race riots of 1961-64 and the disturbances of the period 1964-65 as the Jagan government was replaced and government by Forbes Burnham’s administration began. The race riots are not centre stage, but the detail which attracts Shinebourne’s attention is that it is said that at Wismar in 1963:

… women had held down women to be raped - Afro-Guianese women held down Indo-Guianese women to be raped in revenge for their men preferring them, revenge against their men too. Violence was always a weapon used by one sex against the other sex, so it was inevitable it would be used by one race against the other. (pp. 16-17)

Similarly, culture and personal relations are perceived with a woman’s eye: the maticore ceremonies which are a detail at the end of the novel are Hindu rituals performed two days before an orthodox Hindu wedding, in the late afternoon usually (in the novel it is at night), during which a sacred knot is tied to the wrist of the woman being married, and the first anointing of the body takes place. This is a fertility rite and apart from the bride, the only unmarried woman there is an unmarried sister of the bridegroom, who digs the earth for the puja to Mother Earth in the ceremony. The word comes from two Hindi words, meaning earth and to dig. So the ceremonies become a powerful invocation of women’s community which reinforce the atmosphere of the novel’s ending, where Sandra hears that her male friend Son is leaving Guyana to study abroad and she is centred again in the world of women at home. She has memories of Sarah; nurses her mother, (whose death is the final event of the novel’s final section) meets her primary school friend Madeleine, now a nurse, and is supported by Noor, Miss Barry and the rest of the village women of influence. But the novel shifts emphasis importantly twice in its perspective on the male role. Clearly, Sandra’s father is perceived sympathetically as a man misunderstood by his wife and mother-in-law, but who in the end manages, as they have not, to choose his own death. Perhaps this is a result of the novelist’s fairminded dislike of domination of one gender by the other (in the village, the women are clearly in charge). More worryingly, in the Georgetown section of the novel, Sandra finds a lot of fault in other women - Daphne and Amy for their hardness, Veronica for her willingness to serve male vanity - so that when we add this to the portrait of schoolgirl tensions between Sandra and her friends in the opening part of the work, we see that Sandra is essentially isolated from both her own generation of women and from modern independent women in the city. Her sense of identity is clearly with rural mother-figures, women who can evidently understand many things and have a strong sense of self which they have struggled to develop. My problem really is that this freeflowing shift of sympathies between the gender groups in the work seems to oppose some of the theses which are offered us about the nature of male and female relations:

People like Morgan and Lewis did not like to admit to their sexual tyranny over women… but when their male pride was ignored they could be as chauvinist as the rest. (p. 107)

Sandra’s rural father is depicted as being deeply opposed to education in general and to that of girls in particular, for example, and perhaps this is not surprising, since he has to contend with a power of female networking (Sandra’s job is obtained by her mother’s interaction with Daphne) which minimizes his influence over the family. But I detect a certain confusion of direction, which has the effect of making it difficult to place Sandra, who now seems to be a woman among women, now a sort of honorary man as a 'female reporter' (this is an actual sign on a desk in the office where Sandra works), now a woman responding to a young man sexually and romantically. Of course this could have been placed as being the kind of confusion which many women who began their careers in the mid-sixties have gone through, but I am not sure that Shinebourne has shaped her character’s contradictions into a deliberate portrait.

There is, however, some excellent writing in the novel. Shinebourne has a controlled and clear style. She uses creole lightly to indicate that people are speaking it, but chooses to rely on a rather formal English style for her main narrative voice. Sometimes the control seems onerous, as if the novel is concerned more with exploring ideas and dissecting characters in relation to these, than with giving a convincing illusion of people developing and things happening naturally, out of which the reader grasps the novelist’s ideas more intuitively and impressionistically than through characters discussing them. There was a moment where I thought perhaps imagistic writing was going to become more important in the work, when David Petrie becomes more responsive and authentic as a person through the influence of 'the Forest', but this is not really developed. Unlike Harris, or even Mittelholzer, Shinebourne leaves the mysterious hinterland of Guyana to a small portion of the novel:

Dutch plantations used to be situated along the river here, and slave rebellions were frequent. Those days were gone, but another layer of history had unfolded along the Canje river when indentured labourers had come to the area. The Afro-Guianese who remained were as close to their slave past as the Indo-Guianese were to their indentured past. They still knew the names of the ships which had brought them to British Guiana. Africans and Indians shared each other’s customs in a way that would be unthinkable elsewhere, and that was probably no longer possible after the race riots. The Jews, Portuguese, French and Dutch had come to Canje too. So close was this past here, it was as if the landscape wore many masks and the spirits of the past still lived here, especially here in the forest where even the silence echoed. (pp. 54-55)

But there is much here. Shinebourne has included a good deal about the racial tensions of Guyana (not only the race rioting but the paradox that six races live close together in a small space but have deep tensions about one another most of the time), about the difficulty of privacy, about rural and urban divisions, the politics of the 1960s - there is almost too much information crammed into this work, which could act as a primer for some important aspects of recent Guyanese events as well as a story about a young woman of strong female consciousness and capability.

Shinebourne is definitely a writer to watch, however, and I am sure that her capacity to create scenes out of small details of domestic or personal experience, the 'unhistoric acts' which are part of the quotation from George Eliot’s Middlemarch which prefaces the book, will remain a major part of her novelistic technique. Here is her greatest strength, a vision which attends to the way human beings respond both on the surface and deep down:

Now Laila was in the kitchen. She had not finished the washing, but was taking the pots and pans from the cupboard. It was too early to begin cooking lunch; she was in there to eavesdrop. (p.21)

He ran down the front steps three at a time, and left the yard through the side gate. She watched him as he walked along the road. The sun was coming out from behind a mound of clouds, and the spreading sunlight unfolded along the road. (p. 181)

Timepiece provokes some thought in me about the nature of control in women’s writing. It has been clear for a long time that writers like Naipaul are really controllers of their characters, writing mandarin prose in which nobody can escape being pinned to the page and dissected. Shinebourne does this sometimes, giving accounts of characters which seem too obviously sketches for the novelist rather than creations of living people:

He cared too much what people thought about him. He was desperately over-sensitive, made that way because he was so unappreciated. It was easy to sit outside of him and judge him, but only he knew what he felt.(p. 135)

Writers can wield power with delicacy or obviousness in their created worlds: Harris, for example, draws back from seeming to impose any sort of structured order, despite his careful skill in making fiction. Women writers have often found a political liberation in being able to talk about the private life openly (Audre Lorde is a pioneer of this in her writing about sexuality and mastectomy), conquering their fear of being exposed to the world in the service of liberating women from silence. A colleague asked me recently what are women doing politically, when they write, and I suppose this question is what haunts my response to Shinebourne, for she clearly finds politics an important subject. For me, always the politics lies importantly in the form, and so I would say that perhaps Shinebourne needs to let go a little of a Naipauline tendency to explain and to dissect, to be, in a word, cerebral, in her writing. Women, like men, have a choice in the politics of their role as creator. For me, the culture of women is one of revelation and sharing where it is strongest and most supportive, and I would have liked to see more of this aspect of the women’s world which is sketched in Timepiece. But I have to say that my main response is simply pleasure that we have a new, interesting and achieved woman writer with us. Long may she continue.

This is a review of Timepiece

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