Family matters

By Melissa Richards

Pynter Bender, by Jacob Ross
Fourth Estate, ISBN 978-0-00-722297-1, 452 pp

The title character of Jacob Ross’s first novel is born blind, a full two days after his twin brother. He has the eyes of a white man and is viewed with suspicion both by his family and by Old Hope, the community of plantation labourers in which the novel is set. He is a jumbie boy, “one of de Old Ones come again.” Specifically, he is believed to be the reincarnation of Zed Bender, a rebellious slave who died at the hands of his master.

When the novel opens, Pynter has gained his sight through the intervention of the village mystic, and Ross beautifully captures the world that the boy discovers with his “new and delicate” eyes:

Pynter left home, let the slant of the hill carry him down towards the water to watch them wash and talk the day away . . . He just sat there, feeding his eyes on the glitter and the green and on the throbbing reds and yellows of their washing spread out on the soap-bleached stones . . .

Each woman had her own little acre of stones on which she spread her washing. Up to their knees in water, they beat the clothing against the boulders and flashed their soapy corn husks over them. He’d grouped their names in his head according to the sound of them — Ursula, Petra, Barbara and Clara, Cynty, Lizzie, Tyzie, Shirley. And then there was Miss Elaine, her name all pretty and by itself, just like the way she was.

Pynter is a sensitive, intelligent child, and Ross conveys both his curiosity and his vulnerability while gradually making us aware of the complex family relationships that surround him. When the narrative opens, he and his brother Peter are the only children in a family of strong but often powerless women, and men who are absent or else planning their escape.

Jacob Ross

Jacob Ross. Photo courtesy the author

This complicated extended family lives in a yard that Pynter’s grandfather John Seegal spent ten years blasting out of the rocks above Old Hope Road, creating a space for each of his three daughters (his only son is required to make a way for himself): Tan Cee, the eldest, childless, and devoted to a philandering husband, arguably the strongest maternal influence in Pynter’s life; Elena, the twins’ somewhat distant mother; and Patty, the family beauty, but also the one who will prove herself closest to Pynter’s intellectual equal. Deeka, the matriarch, is eternally grieving for John Seegal, the first of the book’s men to “walk.” Openly hostile to Pynter, she is convinced that he is destined for an early death, and on occasion we worry that this may come at her own hands. Then there is Birdie, a gentle giant of an uncle, able to achieve miraculous things with bread, but unable to keep himself out jail for any extended period of time.

Strange circumstances surround Pynter’s conception, and during his extended stay on his own with his father Manuel Forsyth we are introduced to a hostile half-brother. We hear the name of Gideon, Pynter’s half-brother, well before the character is introduced, so it is little surprise when his appearance threatens the idyll that has been created between father and son. Gideon’s relative wealth (and we learn quickly that money is at the heart of the enmity) is a reminder of the vulnerability of Pynter and his family, and by extension all of the rural poor.

It may be significant that it is Pynter’s time with his father that creates the opportunity for him to be educated, and exposes him to the poetry of a mysterious, long-dead uncle whose possessions Pynter finds. This is also when Pynter meets Paso, a nephew many years his senior, who will have an influence on his actions later on.

Ross is at his best when describing the knotty connections and intricate patterns of rural life, and within the first hundred pages of his novel he has introduced everything we need for a complex, layered portrait of life in the shadow of the sugar cane plantations. Pynter Bender should be an engaging story about rural Caribbean life in the 1960s, a charming, beautifully told variation on the Caribbean Bildungsroman. But Ross appears to lose faith in the power of the complex domestic tableau that is at the emotional centre of his novel. He wants more for his central character — and perhaps for his novel too — and thus overreaches himself.

The multiple strands that Ross has begun to develop around Pynter’s family relationships, both maternal and paternal, are slowly abandoned as ever more characters are introduced into the plot. This is especially frustrating because Ross proves himself adept at building suspense. In the early part of the book a subtly crafted tension is allowed to develop around specific characters. It seems a marker to the relative importance of these characters within the plot. We read on eagerly awaiting the events that have been presaged. But these events never come, or else, when they occur, lack the drama that seems promised. Many of the characters we might expect to play a significant part in the narrative simply disappear. Similarly, new characters are introduced without it being clear how they serve the narrative, or whether they tell us anything new about the central characters. This may be the way events occur in real life, apparently significant characters appearing and disappearing without ultimately having any real impact on our lives, but it makes for unsatisfying fiction. It allows the book to feel rambling and unwieldy.

From the very beginning, Ross builds a picture of the vulnerable rural poor, crushed by their labour on the sugar cane plantations, and some of the shifts in his narrative are part of a movement from the domestic to the political. The focus of the narrative becomes the struggle between the oppressive political regime and a fledgling movement being mobilised to resist it. The rich family relationships recede into the background as Pynter becomes entangled with this burgeoning revolutionary movement, in which Paso is a central force. And while many of the characters obviously believe that the movement will create an alternative for the men who “look up from pulling ratoons from the earth and suddenly see nothing but the canes, stretching all the way to the end of [their] days, beyond life itself,” Pynter’s feelings about the movement are ill-defined. While he will eventually make his disillusionment clear, from the very beginning he is presented as distant and uncommitted. Ross seems to suggest that his involvement is motivated by a desire to protect Paso and others, but this creates problems for his characterisation.

While the initial portrayal of Pynter as the remote, knowing child works well (in part because we are often reminded of his vulnerability), the portrayal of Pynter the adult is less successful. An equally sage adult, he now manages to effect daring rescues, while miraculously avoiding harm. Because the story is told almost entirely from his point of view and he shows little evidence of a capacity for self-questioning or self-doubt, the characterisation gradually begins to feel one-dimensional.

The novel becomes less successful the further away it moves from the yard, its complex emotional heart. Ross, who is the author of two short story collections, is obviously a talented writer, but his plot is too diffuse, his cast too great. Despite Ross’s gifts, Pynter Bender is a novel rich with unfulfilled promise.


The Caribbean Review of Books, February 2009

Melissa Richards was born in Trinidad and now lives in London. She is a former journalist and is currently a desk editor at Hodder Education, UK.