By Rachael Manley
Publisher: Cormorant Books
Reviewed by Jeffrey C. Cobham
A love story ‘resisting the focus to aim for the heart’
The main setting for Rachel Manley’s The Black Peacock is a tiny un-Caribbean island.
“ This was not an island with the promise of beach and palms. This was the menace of steep rock coast, guarded by a moat deeply blue……..rising with huge dark trees, ferocious, jagged iguana tails in day old western light.”
Our first view of the island through the eyes of Lethe, the main human protagonist , as she sees it for the first time, is of “ stony greys and dark green, feral and willful, a clutter of windblown rockface and ungroomed trees turned away from welcome”.
But then, Lethe’s first reaction – “A feeling of recognition overwhelmed me.”
The love story, for that is what it is, begins as Lethe and the waiting Daniel reunite on the island, but already we sense a shadow ahead, and as she meets the island’s inhabitants, the boatman Charon, his father Aesop and the black peacock, Othello, the shadow deepens. The narrative in the mouths of Lethe and of Daniel, wends its way through the years from their first youthful meeting, across the Caribbean and beyond, switching back and forth through then, now and the in-betweens.
Structurally, the story just about holds together from voice to voice and decade to decade, held together by our awareness of the island’s dark undertow, the inexorable sense of fate awaited; the knowledge that wherever they roam, they will face truth on the dark island shores. It may be that the author intended Othello, the black peacock of the title, to be the embodiment of that fate—Othello, singular, impervious to blandishment or threat, seemingly immortal while all around him withers, but the stronger more elemental embodiment of fate, the third protagonist, is the island itself, its crags, dark sands, its ungroomed trees – “ A samaan tree emerged out of the shadows. The half light beneath its ceiling gathered obdurate as if we faced a mountain.”
The dead remain attached to the island; Esopus the original owner has left a living legacy of resentment borne by his son Aesop and grandson Charon; the wraith Mamta, Aesop’s daughter….dead, but so very present.
The strength of the love story lies in the fact that we follow two persons, circling each other, darting off every so often, but being drawn back towards each other, not by physical passion, but by the need to explore more fully and perhaps catalogue each other’s essences…..both intelligent, but opposites in so many ways. Daniel, cerebral, scholarly; Lethe intuitive, spontaneous. Thus is the tension maintained through the course of the decades.
“She had sent me a true poem, embryonic but promising, with near-perfect pitch, an inner voice that gently and sure-footedly carried a sombre theme, the homesick passing of time, but it kept tripping on its undisciplined excess, circling its theme, and resisting the focus to aim for the heart. So I sent it back to her edited, with the short note: ‘The poem you sent is good. Here it is, back to you better’.”
Walter Scott described the novel as a “fictional narrative ….accommodated to the ordinary train of human events.” Rachel Manley’s first three books were not, by that definition, novels, but were wonderfully limned accounts of the life essentials of her remarkable grandfather Norman , father Michael and grandmother Edna, all of whom have had a tremendous impact on the political and artistic life of Jamaica and the Caribbean. In The Black Peacock, the names are changed “to protect the innocent “ but all three of these remarkable personages are present, not on the periphery of the narrative, but as characters integral to the development of the story and of the relationship between Daniel and Lethe…to the point where the author seems to feel that even though they are not named, she needed to bring again to the reader the essences of these three, and underline just what remarkable human beings they were.
The reader is in some parts of the book drawn into such intimate closeness with these three characters that for a while the central story pales. Daniel’s friends, Lethe’s friends and even those characters who are an integral part of the main plot, are sketched figures to be filled in by the reader’s imagination. Lethe’s grandfather Ernest, father Jacob and Grandmother Nora are carefully and lovingly drawn. In the interactions between Daniel and Nora and Daniel and Ernest , Daniel the story’s male protagonist becomes but a foil, secondary to their magnetism . Sometimes the power of that drawing causes the author’s novelist mask to slip, revealing the face of a biographer whose mission is to ensure that her readers understand and appreciate the private truths of a remarkable public family.
There is a deus ex machina quality to the book’s end. The enigmatic Aesop suddenly waxes loquacious and in a few paragraphs sheds light on all the mysteries of the island’s history, volunteering explanations to the many questions which have hung in the air throughout the book. Perhaps he does so because Lethe is soon leaving but it seems unnatural and though he is ostensibly revealing these histories to her, it feels as though the author has just realized that there is too much left unexplained and has decided to tidy up by speaking to the reader.
The Black Peacock has the feel of the author testing the reader’s reaction, and “resisting the focus to aim for the heart.” She need not fear.
“ You are a writer, Daniel. I just write.”
(Jeffrey C. Cobham who lives in Jamaica, is a retired banker.He is a former chairman of the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts.)