Suffer the children

By Lisa Allen-Agostini

Dog-Heart, by Diana McCaulay
(Peepal Tree Press, ISBN 978-184-523-1231, 244 pp)

Diana McCaulay

Diana McCaulay. Photograph courtesy the author

Jamaica’s poverty rate may be decreasing, according to UNICEF, but it is still children who disproportionately suffer the brunt of it. The international organisation devoted to children’s rights and well-being reported in 2006 that

while only 37 per cent of Jamaicans are children, almost one of every two (44.5 per cent) Jamaicans who lives in poverty is a child. Children in rural areas are the most affected with more than a quarter (25.6 per cent) of them living in poverty. Disparities in terms of consumption patterns are important: the poorest 20 per cent of the population accounts for less than 7 per cent of national consumption; the wealthiest fifth consumes almost as much as the rest of the nation (46.4 per cent of total consumption).

(Situation Analysis on Excluded Children in Jamaica Update 2006)

Diana McCaulay’s debut novel Dog-Heart is a harsh and poignant tableau of these statistics, exploring the relationship between poverty, education, and crime, and tying those back to a national history of violence, violation, and wilful neglect. McCaulay, an environmental activist, submitted her then-unpublished manuscript to the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission’s National Creative Writing Competition in 2008 and won the gold medal. Dog-Heart was published by Peepal Tree Press two years later. The book is a passionate plea for child poverty alleviation couched in a laudable literary format.

McCaulay uses two narrators to tell the story of the precarious relationship between the middle-class, suburban, mixed-race lady Sahara and poor, black ghetto boy Dexter. Sahara takes an interest in Dexter and his family after he begs alms from her at a shopping mall in the city; she becomes their guardian and benefactor in an arrangement that makes everyone uncomfortable, including her son, her business partner, and even Dexter himself. The unlikely alliance seems to bear fruit at first, but spirals into a sad vortex of pain, anger, and misunderstanding, culminating in a bloody death in the ghetto.

The story is gripping, and McCaulay’s decision to use the two narrators is a good one. Dexter’s authentic patois voice is wise beyond his years, while Sahara’s middle-class voice seems terrifically naïve for her age. Sahara’s concerns are her growing business and her awkward relationship with her teenage son Carl, but Dexter ruminates:

Is a whole set a things Miss Sahara don’t know. Like, every ghetto chile go shop from them young — them all can make change. Them can add and subtract in them head, but when them go school, most a them don’t know how to take the number out a them head and put it on paper. She don’t know we don’t have book, well, maybe a romance book or a religious track, but no book-book, like library. She don’t know about bus, about big boy inna the community, she don’t know how teacher shame us, she don’t know how it dangerous to live in Jacob’s Pen.

It is Dexter, not Sahara, who documents the violence of his daily life: no food, no money, and the rule of the fist:

Been out here long-long, since around seven, beggin. Mumma, she don’t know how it hard. If I go home now, she going beat me, say me wut’less. She don’t understand plaza runnins. People don’t like see boy inna plaza; girl, now, they don’t get chase like us. But we boy, me and Everton and Shelby and Noel, we get chase all the time. Don’t matter if you small like Lasco, you still get chase. One time, a security guard catch Lasco and hold him down inna car park and beat him bad-bad. A foreign white woman, she come over and she tell the security to leave that boy alone. The security say, “Ma’am, you don’t understand dem boy. Dem bad, dem bad so ’til. Dem must beat like mule or donkey. Ghetto pickney must beat.” The white woman say she going call the police, and the security, he laugh. “Lady,” he say, “the police will beat him harder than me.”

McCaulay develops Dexter’s character much further than Sahara’s, as if it is really his story, and not so much hers; but in fact the story is as much hers as his, and they run on parallel tracks towards the cataclysmic, horrifying ending. The ghetto denizens who people the book on the whole are much more robustly characterised than the middle-class ones; their voices ring with authenticity of register and experience. Sahara and her friends and family sometimes seem pallid and thin in comparison, perhaps because McCaulay infuses the ghetto with passion and fury, but portrays middle-class life as much less eventful.

In a 2009 report on child poverty in Jamaica, again commissioned by UNICEF, the point is made that “universal primary education . . . has been achieved with net enrolment over 90 per cent and gross enrolment approximating 100 per cent. The challenge for Jamaica is now to address the quality of the education that the enrolled students receive and to improve attendance rate which lags behind that of enrolment.” (Child Poverty and Disparities in Jamaica). McCaulay’s central premise in Dog-Heart is Sahara’s benevolent intervention in the education of Dexter, his brother, and his baby sister. By the novel’s end one is forced to conclude that the enterprise was a hopeless failure, and that nothing will change the fate of the poor. Considering how closely McCaulay’s themes and characterisations hew to the statistical evidence of the real Jamaica, it is worth considering Dog-Heart’s perspective.


The Caribbean Review of Books, November 2010

Lisa Allen-Agostini is a Trinidadian writer of poetry, fiction, and drama. She co-edited the anthology Trinidad Noir (2008), and is the author of a young adult novel, The Chalice Project (2009). She also administers the Allen Prize for Young Writers, a non-profit organisation dedicated to rewarding, training, and publishing teenage writers from Trinidad and Tobago.