Her foolish heart
By Vanessa Spence
Black Rock, by Amanda Smyth
Serpent’s Tail, ISBN 978-1846-6869-62, 256 pp
Once Celia, Amanda Smyth’s teenage heroine, leaves her native Tobago and moves to Trinidad, Black Rock, set in the 1950s, picks up pace and becomes a really enjoyable read. Celia’s mother is dead; raised by her aunt, she has to flee Tobago after being raped by her uncle. She hopes to find her father, a British man who lives in England, but she first makes her way to Trinidad and falls in with the kindly William, who takes her home to his mother and finds her a job.
Afro-Trinbagonians are at the bottom of the pile in 1950s Trinidad, and Celia — black, ignorant, and only sixteen — is easy prey for Dr and Mrs Rodriguez, her white employers. Together, they make unfair demands on her time and her body. We suspect that Celia’s loving Aunt Sula knows all too well what goes on in Dr Rodriguez’s Port of Spain household, where Celia works as a nanny and maid, but Smyth makes us appreciate Sula’s unwillingness to violate Celia’s privacy and to blame Celia for being young and foolish.
Celia is doubly blessed in her friendship with William, who works as Dr Rodriguez’s gardener. But although William saves her life, and later on her self-respect, he never emerges as a fully believable young man, and he’s never Celia’s hero. Instead, Celia is drawn to the white men who own and run the island. The villain of the piece is the manipulative Dr Rodriguez, who stars in this Trini version of a bodice-ripper. He’s handsome, a practiced seducer, and has all the conscience of a tomcat.
Like William and Dr Rodriguez, some of the other major characters are drawn as if to remind us of their types in Caribbean literature, Caribbean history, and Caribbean sociology. So, among the white characters, we have the white plantation owner (stern but fair) who “takes care” of Aunt Sula and would “take care” of Celia if only she knew how to behave. We also have the white Englishwoman going slowly mad (not in an attic, but no matter) and no effort is spared to pay tribute to Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea.
On the other side of the race and class barrier, among the black characters, we have the deluded black woman who will close her eyes to anything in order to keep her man (drunkenness, indigence, rape — you name it), and the “wutless” black man (a drunk, living off his woman, looking for sex with every female). There is also the fairly stereotypical rendering of all women as victims of men, and all men as more or less powerful (depending on their class and race). However, the novel is set in the 1950s, hence we can relax and say, “Very likely, it might have been so, at that time . . .”
Smyth does not give Celia much insight into her own situation. Instead she portrays her convincingly as a typical, headstrong teenager who believes she’s in charge of her life and her destiny, while those older and wiser can only watch from backstage and wait for Celia to learn by experience.
While the novel may cause those familiar with Caribbean literature and history to groan and raise their eyebrows as Smyth takes all sorts of liberties with what was likely, and what was true, in 1950s Trinidad, they will probably forget their misgivings and get immersed in this rattling good yarn. Smyth, who is half Trinidadian, half Irish, takes us wandering through the landscape of first Tobago and then Trinidad, and engages us as we get know Celia, the Rodriguez family, and her Aunt Sula. But too often we notice when Smyth’s voice is less than sure, and when her eye for detail seems blurred, the novel’s scaffolding shows through.
Where the novel takes hold of us as readers is not in the minutiae of the Rodriguez household in Port of Spain or in the life on the plantation near Arima — both portrayed competently and carefully — but in the drama of Celia’s first love affair and the wounds to her heart and her pride.
While the prose can sometimes be pedestrian, and some of the descriptive passages are nothing if not painstaking, Smyth has a talent for plotting. She keeps us guessing through Celia’s first affair of the heart. We know that the man she loves will turn out to be a shameless deceiver, but we can’t guess exactly how he will reveal himself or exactly what double game he is playing. We pick up hints that Aunt Sula has secrets of her own, but we can’t guess exactly what she’s concealing. We suspect that Celia is not who she thinks she is, but Smyth keeps us wondering till the last chapter about the true identity of Celia’s parents.
In the end, Black Rock does deliver when it matters. It’s well plotted, its main protagonist makes us care for her and her fate, and it explores how overwhelming first love can be, no matter how foolish and reprehensible in the eyes of the world.
Amanda Smyth. Photo by Lee Thomas, courtesy Profile Books
Vanessa Spence was born in 1961 in Jamaica. She grew up there and was educated at Oxford and Yale. Her first novel, The Roads Are Down, was published in 1993.