H Nigel Thomas: Spirits in the Dark
Thomas’ first novel was shortlisted for the Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction but has since gone out of print. It is the story of Jerome Quashee, a resident of the island of Isabella, clearly a proxy for St Vincent. Thomas’ style is, as he goes through the story, to add paragraphs about the future of many of his characters. We know from the opening chapter that Quashee will undergo a religious purification ceremony. We also know that he will be expelled from school (though we only later learn why) and will have nervous breakdowns and spend some time in an institution. Apart from these nuggets of information and the opening chapter, the story is more or less chronological. Quashee is the son of fairly poor, uneducated parents. He himself, however, is keen on learning. Indeed, the second chapter starts with Quashee, aged six, going to the local library to try and borrow a book. He soon shows that he is intelligent and interested in learning. His mother is keen on his schooling, his father less so.
While we follow his schooling and his life, Thomas introduces several background elements. Isabella is a viciously racist society. Throughout Quashee’s early life, it is a British colony and most of the British exploit the black and mulatto population – sexually (girls are routinely raped) and economically. The black and mulatto population is given little opportunity for advancement and if they do gain anything, it is at the insistence of the British government but with much resistance from the white plantation owners. The school which Quashee attends is called the Expatriates and is very much opposed to allowing non-whites in, except for the occasional mulatto. Some do get in but life is not easy for them. There is also the issue of black-black relations. Thomas cleverly shows this by having some visiting Ghanaians staying in Isabella, with Quashee designated to look after one of them and the differences between Africans and Isabellans is clearly shown. Finally, Quashee is gay or, at least, has homosexual tendencies. He does, twice, try to have a sexual relationship with a woman and both times it is a disaster. However, there is huge prejudice against homosexuality in Isabella so he has to keep his feelings to himself.
His relationships with one of the other black students as well as with Peter, son of a white immigrant family, are key. Peter is very much opposed to his parents’ racism and, through him, we can learn about the prejudice that the whites show towards the black and mulatto populations. Quashee’s expulsion from school derails his plans to go to university. However, he fakes an interest in religion so that, through a religious group he joins, he can get to the United States. That, too, fails. He ends up as a not very successful civil servant and, as we have learned from the opening chapter, undergoes a religious conversion.
Some of Quashee’s motivations and behaviour seem odd and without an obvious reason but, apart from that, Thomas does tell us an excellent story of how difficult it is for a poor, gay, black person to grow up and survive in a prejudiced society, a society that is prejudiced against him because of his colour, his economic background and his sexual orientation. The ending is not entirely convincing but this is nevertheless one of the more interesting Caribbean novels. It is sad that it is out of print.
First published 1993 by House of Anansi