John Hearne: Voices Under the Window
Hearne’s first novel was relatively short but considered by most critics to be his best. It starts just as a riot is starting in the centre of Kingston. The people have been promised jobs by the politicians running for office but, of course, the politicians have not delivered. One of the politicians – the Minister of Labour – arrives at the House of Representatives in a fancy car, well dressed and clearly fatter than he was, still making the promises to the people waiting outside. This time they react. One man slashes the tyres of his car, while another throws a stone through one of the windows of the House. When police try to arrest the men, a riot ensues. We then switch to the main focus of the novel. Mark Lattimer is a lawyer by training but an influential figure in the People’s Party, presumably a thinly disguised reference to the People’s National Party. With him are two other people – Ted Burrows and Brysie Dean, whom Hearne calls Lattimer’s mistress. Lattimer has a feeling something is going to happen (he does not explain why) and urges his companions to accompany him in leaving the town centre. However, they get caught up in the riot and have to abandon their car. Lattimer sees a young child falling in the crowd and rushes to help him. He is then attacked by man with a machete and badly injured. A local woman takes the three of them to her flat and agrees to go and get help. Virtually all of the rest of the novel concerns their stay in her flat and, more particularly, Lattimer’s reminiscences about his earlier life.
Hearne does not initially tell us what race the three are but we gradually learn. Lattimer is white but has black blood in him (this becomes an issue on more than one occasion). Burrows is of Indian origin while Brysie Dean is black. Lattimer grew up in a well-to-do home. We learn how he trained himself to hold a rifle. During the war, he trained as a pilot in Canada, with his friend David. He had an affair with Margaret but forget her when he left for England, feeling only mildly guilty when she became pregnant but less so when she lost the baby. He saw David die when his plane crash-landed and exploded and he himself was wounded on a bombing sortie over Germany. In hospital he met Jean and married her. He studied law in England, while Jean had a child but they split when he cheated on her at least twice. He then returned to Jamaica, to become a lawyer and a politician.
Now, in this flat, he is slowly bleeding to death, reminiscing about his past, happy in his relationship with the much younger Brysie. He is in pain and his reminiscences occur as he slips in and out of consciousness. When he is conscious, he is able to give an account of what is happening in the riot purely on the basis of the sounds he can hear and constantly urges Burrows not to leave the flat. Hearne very cleverly parallels the evolution of the ultimately unsuccessful riot, Lattimer’s condition in the flat and the development of his life up to the present time, finding happiness both professionally and emotionally, though, of course, too late. For a first novel, this is a very mature work and very well done by Hearne and should be much better known.
First published by Faber & Faber in 1955