Between a rock and a hard place

By Philip Nanton

Of Water and Rock, by Thomas Armstrong
(DC Books, ISBN 978-1-897190-59-3, 330 pp)

In 1998 the Barbadian novelist Kevyn Arthur offered an overview of sixty years of Barbadian writing. His article “Barbadian Literature, 1933–1993: Context and Survey”, published in the Journal of the Barbados Museum and Historical Society, comprised a modest eighteen pages. He dutifully recorded a range of publications and authors, some of which he traced back to the eighteenth century. He raised, as well, a few problems facing the development of literature in the island. They included the negative effect of television-watching, poor literature teaching in schools, the dominance of overseas markets for writers; and, he suggested, unlike Trinidad, Barbados lacked the diverse cultural ingredients to help trigger its art and literature. In a surprising conclusion, before signing off his piece he dared to ask: “have we yet created, are we any closer than we ever were to creating, indeed, is it possible to create, a recognisably Barbadian literature?”

Arthur didn’t define “Barbadian literature” in his survey. His roll-call extended beyond those writers born in the island. He included residents born elsewhere who also wrote about Barbados, and those who were Barbados-born but who wrote about topics other than Barbados. Perhaps on the basis that there isn’t enough Barbadian literature, in the intervening twelve years since Arthur’s survey, the Frank Collymore Literary Endowment Awards (established in 1999) joined the longer-running National Independence Festival of Creative Arts (NIFCA, established in 1978) in offering annual prizes to reward new creative writing in the island. Poetry and short stories have predominated in the prizewinning in both competitions. This trend was bucked in 2008 by two novel-length manuscripts. Thomas Armstrong’s Of Water and Rock was the runner-up to Karen Lord’s Redemption in Indigo for that year’s Collymore Award (the latter was reviewed in the September 2010 CRB). Both novels have since been published, and in 2010 the outcome was reversed when Armstrong won the top NIFCA Published Book Prize.

Of Water and Rock is Thomas Armstrong’s first novel. It is set in an imagined small rural Barbadian community three years after the island’s political independence in 1966. Armstrong is a Canadian with attachments to Barbados. His blurb notes indicate a long association with the island that dates back to 1979, and in 1980 he married a Barbadian. The notes say also that he divides his time between Canada and Barbados. This novel is clearly one product of his long association. Where might it fit in the island’s literary landscape, as drawn by Kevyn Arthur? To answer this question, I want to explore the story of Barbados that Armstrong tells, the Barbados that he creates.

Two stories are at the heart of Of Water and Rock. One is a simple descriptive page-turner, a suspense plot surrounding family relationships and individual identities, with a happily-ever-after ending.

Edward, a thirty-something white divorced bank employee from Toronto, is of Barbadian extraction. In 1969 he inherits a cottage on the edge of a plantation estate in the Barbados countryside, and travels to Barbados intending to sell the house. He discovers a deeper than expected relationship to the local community, through a recovered diary and through the people he meets across the racial and class spectrum. The long-kept secret he uncovers in the diary is that Mary, the second daughter of the local white squire, is in fact adopted. She is the daughter of a black woman, Sissy, of humble origins from the village. Mary is then revealed as Edward’s father’s unacknowledged child, and thus his half-sister.

In the course of the novel, Mary gives birth to a daughter who is black. This leads to much consternation, because of longstanding racial and class prejudice in the society. Eventually, matters are happily resolved through Edward’s interventions. As the story unfolds, he grows to admire the work ethic of the local working-class community and to dislike the prejudice and snobbishness of the upper class of the area. Conveniently, there is an elder sister in the squire’s family, Judith, with whom Edward develops a relationship that prospers by the end of the novel.

The element of suspense in the novel is well maintained, though it is less a “who done it” and more a “who’s your mother” story. It offers a satisfying outcome for the reader in a transparent and realist style of storytelling. Oh happy day.

But there is another story of Barbados presented here that is worth exploring. This other story is about a Barbados viewed from the perspective of a liberal outsider. The novel’s title, Of Water and Rock, directly suggests that an interest in “place,” in the sense of human landscape, is foremost. Thus the novel touches on Arthur’s challenge concerning a recognisably Barbadian literature. In the context of this novel, Arthur’s question can be framed thus: how recognisable is the Barbados that Armstrong creates through his protagonist Edward; and does it matter? The question is worth asking, at least to the extent that the novel has appealed to Barbados’s literary prize-givers. One touchstone is the appeal of seeing Barbadian society as a harmonious community. The other may well be a happy coincidence between how insiders want to see their society and the outsider’s viewpoint that the novel offers. Perhaps both parties want to view Barbados through the simplicity of the exotic.

At one point, well into the novel — after the death of the goodly Sissy, the diary revelations, and Edward’s interventions — the characters achieve a combination of racial and class harmony, a toleration of a gay lifestyle, and some acceptance of the mentally disturbed. An interracial and mixed-class gathering in Sissy’s house is held to mark all this unification. Edward the outsider is the unifying element. The white(ish) upper-class Mary, revealed to all as Edward’s half-sister, gives birth to her black baby after being abusive to Sissy. Through Edward’s intervention, Mary comes to accept the late Sissy as her mother, and to accept also her black baby and her black working-class community links. During this gathering, Mary symbolically feeds the mad “Doc”, a character whom her mother also used to look after before she died. Before all this harmony breaks out, the outsider, Edward, has experienced boorish white upper-class drawing-room society behaviour, which contrasts with the humility and warmth of working-class relationships.

There is nothing to suggest that Armstrong’s treatment of dialect is particularly Bajan, but he maintains a sufficiently workmanlike approach throughout the novel. At other times, the style leans towards a degree of over-writing that can sound pompous. People don’t go out, they “venture forth.” A massive wave crashes “unrestrained against the ancient wall of limestone.” Water doesn’t pour out, it comes “issuing from the showerhead.” Edward’s lawyer doesn’t disagree, he “replied in the negative.” To drive home the contrast between good and bad, after Edward spends an evening sitting around with the boorish white upper-class folk, he thinks of the goodly Sissy: “After an evening of pretense, it pleased him to imagine her standing in her land, rooted to the ground, like one of her massive mahoganies.”

Ultimately, Armstrong brings a simplistic outsider’s eye to local class and racial distinctions and prejudices, characterised by the desire to achieve a sense of harmonious and inclusive community. Barbados is simply beautiful, warm, and companionable in contrast with bleak and unfriendly Toronto. This Barbados is, of course, Armstrong’s Barbados, the construction of an outsider’s wish fulfillment. Its appeal arises essentially from this over-simplification, in which the characters of the village lean towards racial and class stereotypes: there are the prejudiced white upper-class characters, and in contrast the hardworking, sensitive, and humble black woman, Sissy, who works the land; the good-natured rumshop owner, Ollie Campbell; Edward’s kindly domestic help, Undine; the flamboyant male homosexual RJ; and finally Doc, the harmless mad man touched by too much learning, who, like mad King George III of England, talks to trees.

I have suggested there are two ways of reading this novel. While it works well enough on the first level — that of the suspense story — it is when Armstrong tackles the construction of place that things begin to go awry. It is not that outsiders should lay off trying to depict any Caribbean society they choose to depict. Nor is it that any of the community-enhancing characteristics presented in the novel can’t be found in Barbados on any given day. But it is important to remind readers, should they need reminding, about the reality of the other side of the carefully constructed unity: that, for the most part, the outsider, or even returnee, tends to remain outside; that to be gay in the Caribbean condemns many to a threatened and underground existence; that mental institutions in the region are full to bursting; that not all Caribbean black folk are hard-working and saintly; nor are all the white folk boorish and bigoted.


The Caribbean Review of Books, November 2010

Philip Nanton is based in Barbados. He teaches cultural studies and is a freelance writer. He is the editor of Remembering the Sea: An Introduction to Frank A. Collymore (2004), and writer and producer of the spoken-word CD Island Voices (2008).