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Merle Collins: Angel

Collins’ first novel is a colourful tale of life in Grenada in the period leading up to independence and in the period after independence. Collins tells the story from the point of view of the ordinary people and she has a robust cast of characters, all of whom speak in the local patois (or patwa, as they call it), with a glossary at the back of the book to help non-Grenadians out. The story revolves around the King-McAllister family and, in particular, their daughter, the eponymous Angel. The mother is Elizabeth King but everyone calls her Doodsie. Her partner (they do not marry and this causes one or two problems later on, such as when Angel goes to Catholic school) is Allan McAllister. The book starts when Angel is a baby but, during the course of the book, she will have three brothers – Simon, Rupert and Carl.

The novel starts with the burning of the plantations of the white land-owners and general civil unrest. Doodsie and Allan struggle to make a living. Doodsie has a small shop and works as a cleaner in house of the rich (something she will continue to do for much of the book). Allan grows crops but also has to do odd jobs. For a period, he goes to work in the United States but does not make much from it, as the workers are exploited. When he returns, the unrest is continuing, led by a union boss called only Leader, but presumably based on Eric Gairy. Doodsie and Allan as well as most of their family and friends support Leader, at least initially. We follow the struggles of the family as the workers continue to be exploited and strikes do occur. Meanwhile, Angel is growing up and is something of a wilful child, standing up to school bullies and to her parents, but also doing well academically. As a result she is sent to the Catholic school where she does fairly well but is outshone in the disobedience area by Janice, who will be lifelong friend and who is continually in trouble with the school authorities.

While she does not make much of it, Collins does show us that Allan, while not a terrible man, does not treat Doodsie as an equal, making decisions behind her back, having affairs and occasionally abusing her. Angel, of course, is always ready to defend her mother. The fact that they aren’t married does put Doodsie at something of an economic disadvantage. Meanwhile, Angel has passed all her A Levels, except for West Indian history, and becomes a teacher. However, she plans to go to university in Jamaica and manages to get assistance to do so. Her defiance is shown from the beginning where she resists the traditional freshman initiation rites. While there she meets people from other parts of the West Indies and they eventually form a group which is of a political nature, both as regards what is happening in the university but also outside.

After university, however, she does not keep up with the group and returns to Grenada, where she becomes a teacher. She is now very active in politics, trying to be elected to the executive of the teacher’s union, but also campaigning against Leader. Grenada is in turmoil at this time but she and many others are involved in opposition. Collins gives a full account of the turmoil, including demonstrations, government and police reaction, shootings and the military take-over. While we do follow the aging and mellowing of Doodsie and Allan but also the development of their four children – Angel is not the only one involved politically – it is the political situation that takes centre stage. Inevitably the family is caught up in it all, culminating in the US invasion. It is a fine account of life in a West Indian country that saw more disruption than most and Collins manages to tell a fine tale of an ordinary family and the situation that they are caught up in.

Publishing history

First published in 1987 by The Women’s Press