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Pauline Melville: The Ventriloquist’s Tale

This is not quite magic realism but it gets close, as the boundary between myth and reality is far more fluid than it is in conventional Western thinking. Indeed, this is one of the key themes, along with the problem of how the Western way of life destroys traditional cultures and incest. And
there is also Evelyn Waugh.

Alexander McKinnon was the first McKinnon to settle in Guyana. He is Scottish but he settles in and marries into the Wapisiana tribe, in a relatively remote part of Guyana. The story is about McKinnon and his descendants and the clash of the Wapisiana way of life and the Western way of life. We start at the end, with Chofy McKinnon, married with a son, but unhappy with his life, going to Georgetown where he meets Rosa Mendelson who is in Guyana to research Evelyn Waugh‘s stay in Guyana (then British Guiana). [Waugh travelled to British Guiana at the end of 1932 and disliked it. He wrote about it in his travelogue Ninety-Two Days and used one of the people he met – Mr. Christie – in his novel A Handful of Dust. Waugh had another reason for coming to British Guiana – his interest in the Carey-Elwes diaries, the diaries of a missionary who had gone insane and who reappears in this novel as Father Napier.]

Melville’s wonderful descriptions of the growing pains and the woes of the McKinnon family, as they struggle with life in a difficult land and with the growing Westernisation of the country, are masterly. At the beginning of the book, she cleverly quotes Julian Barnes There shall be no more novels about incest (though Barnes was not adverse to this topic) and then deals superbly with the passion between Danny and his sister Beatrice. Nor does she hold back. The couple’s incest is predominantly sexual. When their sister, Wifreda, find out about them, they run away together. Their father tries to find them but is unable to do so. It takes the somewhat sinister religious fanatic, Father Napier, to track them down, shortly before he goes insane. And it is Father Napier who is Melville’s other great creation. He is based on a real person, a missionary called Father Carey-Elwes (a relative of Evelyn Waugh’s painter friend, Simon Elwes), who came to British Guiana to convert the heathen and ended up going insane as Father Napier does here but not before Melville gives us a wonderful portrait of a man with a mission who does not fit in and who has genuine human foibles.

Ultimately, it is the failure of the Western model that seems to interest Melville. The failure is, of course, social and cultural but it is also economic (she recounts a wonderful fantasy by the Guyanese Finance Minister who proposes that Guyana resigns as a country), political and even medical (as Chofy’s son dies in a Western-style hospital). From Rosa Mendelson’s literary researches to the Americans’ looking for oil, the model does not seem to work for Guyana.

Publishing history

First published by Bloomsbury 1997