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Garth St. Omer: The Lights on the Hill

The unsigned intro to my copy (Heinemann 1986 Caribbean Writers Series reprint) states that St Omer was very much influenced, in writing this, by Colin Wilson’s The Outsider and the existentialists. You could make that case for a significant number of novels from the second half of the twentieth century and, frankly, though the hero of the story is a disaffected young man who does not fit in with his society, there are sound reasons for that and they are not necessarily connected with the disaffection that Wilson or the existentialists were talking about.

Stephenson is a young man, like his creator, from St Lucia who is now going to University College (presumably the one in Jamaica) in his late twenties. We gradually learn of his difficult upbringing. He is the illegitimate son of a poor woman (he never knows his father), who has struggled while growing up. After the war, there were plenty of opportunities for smuggling and Stephenson was soon involved. He eventually gave it up and managed to get a job on another (unspecified) island as a teacher. However, he is not happy there either and watches as other teachers go off elsewhere, just as had happened with the people he was at school with, who had left St Lucia. He has a few affairs but they do not make him happy. He hears about the possibility of a scholarship to University College but does not think that he would stand a chance of getting in. Nevertheless, he does apply and is accepted. The novel starts while he is at university.

However – and here is where there is something of the outsider – he does not fit in. He does not know what course to take and reluctantly chooses English but is not happy with it. He makes friends with some of the other students but still does not feel fully part of the group. On the outside, there is discussion about the creation of the West Indies Federation but, though he is aware of it, he does not feel much interest in the issue. It is only when he meets Thea that he livens up somewhat. Thea is eight years younger than him and has just been selected as the beauty queen but they start an affair. He has a guilty secret from his past and he is worried about telling her, though he eventually does. He also meets Marie, a fat woman he knew from his past, who has also had her share of problems and is also struggling. Indeed, his past does seem to preoccupy him, particularly his mother and his half-brother, Carl, who has had no education and cannot speak English properly. In the end, though he does not fit in and is not sure where he is going, it is all left somewhat open, leaving us with a rather unsatisfactory novel, almost written as though it is a first draft. The stories of some of these people will be taken up in subsequent novels but this one on its own barely works.

Publishing history

First published in 1968 (as part of Shades of Grey) by Faber & Faber