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Merle Collins: The Colour of Forgetting

Collins’ second novel is very similar in style to her first, with lashings of local colour, a love for often flawed characters, speech in dialect and a tense political situation. The novel, however, is perhaps less focussed than the previous one, primarily because there is not a character to replace Angel or, rather, there is but he is far less interesting. One character that is interesting is the Cassandra-like Carib (who is, in fact, three characters – grandmother, mother and daughter, with all three being similar). The book opens with one of the Caribs shouting what all three will shout throughout the story. Blood in the north, blood to come in the south and the blue crying red in between. What does it mean? Most (but by no means all) people think that she is mad and ignore her. Others have various theories as to what it might mean with the blue being the sea or the sky or both and the red being blood. Carib Junior finally gives us a somewhat convoluted explanation at the end of the book. Carib may or may not be descended from the Carib Indians but she knows their stories. They jumped over the cliffs to avoid being taken by the French and Carib can even point out to where exactly they jumped. All of this is linked up with the descendants of the Malheureuse family.

The key early event, and one that might be a partial explanation for Carib’s cry, is that one of the Malheureuse family (a white family – malheureuse is, of course, the French for unhappy or unfortunate), for no apparent reason, killed John Bull, a black slave. Or perhaps he didn’t, for though he beat him over the head and he fell and died, it seems that John Bull may have been drunk and choked to death on his own vomit. Whatever the truth, it seems that the Malheureuses and John Bulls intermixed, resulting in the main characters of this novel. However, one of the descendants, Mr. Oldman, left his land to be divided among his heirs and this was done. However, one of the descendants who had been away, working in Cuba, returned and found that the will had specified that only legitimate descendants were entitled to a share in the land. As several of the descendants were illegitimate, they were not entitled to a share. Some take it in their stride but Ti-Moun, who has worked hard on his land, is not going to give up his share. His wife, Cassandra, is on his side. There is naturally considerable inter-family strife but Ti-Moun, Cassandra and their daughter Willive have to leave. Ti-Moun fights and is hurt and because of his injuries or a broken heart, he soon dies.

Cassandra will continue to resent this and her daughter, Willive, will continue to feel the importance of owning land as she and her husband, the taciturn Ned, do not have any land of their own and struggle to make ends meet. They have a son called William but he is soon nicknamed Thunder. It seems when Malheureuse killed John Bull, there was a lot of thunder. As a result, some descendants have a fear of thunder. William/Thunder is terrified of thunder and will continue to be even into his adult life. As a child, he shelters behind his mother’s skirts and as an adult he still trembles with fear when he hears thunder. Thunder is the Angel substitute but he is not a very interesting character, apart from his fear of thunder. He will study hard, but mainly out of fear of being beaten, go to school and then to study in England. He will join the government and support the revolution. (Though the island is called Paz (Spanish for peace, though so named because of the lack of peace), it is clearly based on Grenada.) Thunder will have a disagreement with his parents on the ownership of land (he will consider it petty-bourgeois, as will the government) and this will divide them till almost the end of the book.

Apart from the sort-of explanation of Carib’s warnings and her probable accuracy, the book does not have a real ending nor, indeed, a real plot. Collins aims to show the struggles of the poorer people of her island but also the difficult political situation, which is probably not in accord with what the people want. That she is more in sympathy with the women characters, who naturally bear more of the burden, is clear. Thunder is not well-drawn and clearly she does not have any great love for him, much preferring his mother, Willive and this, at least in part, explains why this novel is not as successful as its predecessor.

Publishing history

First published in 1995 by Virago Press