This collection of fifteen stories is Lawrence Scott’s second, and his sixth published book-length work of fiction. Scott’s favourite themes – religion, politics and sexuality – are woven throughout. His first collection and second book, the much-lauded Ballad for the New World, gave us a writer earnestly committed to the short story form (which, thankfully, is still very evident here, ‘A 1930s Tale: Coco’s Last Christmas’, ‘Faith’s Pilgrimage’ and ‘Tales Told under the San Fernando Hill’ being among the highlights); and that book, including Elizabeth Walcott-Hackshaw’s Four Taxis Facing North, Raymond Ramcharitar’s The Island Quintet and, recently, Sharon Millar’s The Whale House and Other Stories, are easily among the best first story-collections to appear in the English-speaking Caribbean in a long while, certainly since Olive Senior’s excellent Summer Lightning, Earl Lovelace’s unforgettable A Brief Conversion and Pauline Melville’s mesmeric Shape-shifter.
Scott adjusts the lens in his latest book, revealing the cultural atavism of contemporary Trinidad, where the sea breeze is scented with rotting flesh. But let me put the stench of Trinidad on hold for a bit. The first story, ‘A Little Something’, is classic Scott. Two Trinidadian men meet on a London street. One, the narrator, has a more fortunate background than the other, Jai, who is washing a car when they meet. These two are exactly the sort of people who have to travel beyond Trinidad in order to connect as human beings. In Trinidad, near Penal, this connection could not have happened, the story suggests. But their expatriate status washes away much of the class/cultural restraints of the island. The men talk, they learn about one another, reflect cautiously on the island’s history, the history of cane; and they learn that they lived not far from one another on the island, just as in London. It is a familiar theme in Caribbean literature in English, and Scott knows it, and so the story succeeds – beautifully so – because of an unexpected and, for this reader, most welcome move at the end. Jai and the narrator interact in an important way, facing the past, not shying away from it: ‘I felt that Jai and I could go on like this. But I wondered what we were skirting around, what was it we were not talking about?’ They do talk. And yes, there is nostalgia, and also regret. But they connect — as understanding, seeing beings. The end is a masterly composed light touch, memorably sad. No more sweet, Trini paradise of people meeting abroad and trying to outdo each other in their devotion to the island of their origin: Who more Trini to de bone? Who could out wine who? Bitch, t’row yuh waist an lemme see sumting! The story goes nowhere near that repetitive cliché, amusing as it often is (and not).
‘A Dog Is Buried’ is strong, dark, tropic-gothic to the core and mysteriously atmospheric. Think Poe and Bowles — and Naipaul unwound. The narrator arrives in Trinidad late at night, accompanied only by a too quiet, too helpful taxi driver. The prose is well modulated, the story well paced and you really feel the lurking horror:
Who would cut a dog’s throat? I stepped over the corpse into the kitchen and turned on the light. The illumination lit up the dead thing in all its wondrous, enigmatic horror. As I stepped over it, I almost felt irreverent now, like crossing over the corpse of a person. I went into the house turning on lights and opening doors with my bunch of keys. Nothing appeared to be disturbed, but the house smelt musty, with mildew, dust and cobwebs and the furniture was sticky with the residue of sea blast. (11)
Consider our narrator, a version of the one from the first story, if you like: he said he was returning, and he has. So the collection as a whole convincingly produces another work, a sixteenth, due to each of the fifteen stories enhancing each other. ‘A Dog Is Buried’ is about a man grappling with his personal and historic past, during an extremely unsettling night. It is very much a story of Trinidad now, with therotting dead-dog stink like the stench of history, but it is not just that which makes it intriguing: you have to read it carefully, for Scott makes bold moves in plot and structure.
The stories span Trinidad, England and even Sweden’s landscape appears in the strange and beguiling ‘The Last Glimpse of the Sun’. ‘That Touch of Blue’ is gorgeous, its prose superb, and the play between Trinidad and English countryside exquisite. It is a short-short story almost (one of two in the collection) and the closest to poetry than any story in the book. And the confession on religion by the narrator, ‘I am no believer, but the old myths can still settle upon the landscape and open the mind to reflection on the mystery of life’ is one of the dominant credos of the book.
In ‘Mercy’, yet another really strong piece, Jonathan returns home from playing, and cannot find his mother, she is too busy fussing and worrying about the devil in the yard fighting with her husband. The old maid, Mercy, with her two unbendable legs, is the true saviour when Jonathan has an accident — indirectly a result of his mother being too distracted by the devil fighting with her husband. I admire the subtle broadside religion receives in this story. Only in literature, these days, does there seem to be genuine justice.
Other finely accomplished stories, ‘Prophet’, ‘The Penalty of Death’, ‘Leaving by Plane Swimming Back Underwater’ (it should be mandatory reading throughout the Caribbean, especially in high schools), ‘Ash on Guavas’ and the marvellous ‘The Wedding Photograph’, which closes the book, often show Trinidad and the wider Caribbean cast in a blue-bruised light alongside the region’s history; an island now replete with brutality and corruption. But that history does not excuse the problems it has today. Scott subtly illustrates; he does not pardon the past criminal industries of slavery and indentureship in Trinidad, nor the failures of independence that have led to the island being recognised as an international criminal haven. The book shows, for this reader, that the forces of Caribbean atavism lie in our inability to care enough; and if we do, maybe we care about the wrong things, for reasons that, maybe too late now, are obvious for anyone who cares to read and see.
Keith Jardim (in Wasafiri magazine), author of Near Open Water (Peepal Tree Press