George Lamming: In the Castle of My Skin
Lamming’s best-known novel is both an affectionate tale of growing up in Barbados as well as an indictment of the racism and colonialism there. It is told mainly through the eyes of an unnamed narrator who is nine at the start and eighteen at the end, as he prepares to leave the island. However, Lamming does use other perspectives, specifically the two old inhabitants of the village where the novel is primarily set, a husband and wife, identified as the Old Man and the Old Woman as well, of course, as the omniscient narrator. The boys growing up – the narrator and his friends Trumper, Bob and Boy Blue – are, in many respects, like other boys, being mischievous, hunting crabs, fighting, observing the adult world (including spying on a courting couple), dealing with school as well as facing the problems that their parents face. At the same time, we see the problems the inhabitants of the village face. The whole village is owned by a white landlord, Creighton, who is primarily interested in profit, doing minimal repairs after the regular flooding and having his authority imposed by often tough overseers and police. Eventually, he sells out the whole village to developers.
Some of the scenes are beautifully observed. The school assembly on Empire Day is a case in point. The boys are told by the inspector that they are part of the English tradition (which, of course, they are not). All of them have to wait after the inspector has departed and each child is given a penny. There is a noise and one child, who was thinking of telling who was responsible for the noise, is savagely beaten, without getting a chance to defend himself. The whole school (including teachers) has to wait while the head teacher makes annotations in his book. One teacher goes out to the lavatory and a letter handed to him by another teacher is dropped. The teacher does not realize this and it is picked up by a boy who is tempted to open it but then hands it to the head teacher. The head teacher opens it and sees a picture of his wife kissing a man whose face cannot be seen but given the annotation on the back of the photo with the teacher’s first name and the name on the envelope, he guesses that it is the interestingly named Mr. Slime. The head teacher’s agonizing on what he should do, both to punish Mr. Slime but to avoid confrontation and ridicule, is masterful. We never learn his decision though we do later find out that Mr. Slime has left the school and has become a union organizer, helping the dock workers on strike as well as the village.
The confrontation between the police and some of the people in the village, including some of the children, leading to the death of one of the boys, and the subsequent planned revenge by the villagers on Creighton, forestalled by Mr. Slime, is also superbly portrayed and clearly shows up the difficult situation faced by the local inhabitants and why many of them, the narrator included, decide to leave the island. Too often the boys feel the shame of being born black, when they are taught that being white is superior. Only by leaving the island can the narrator regain his black identity and be proud of it.
First published in 1953 by Michael Joseph