By Michelle Cliff.
166 pages
Trumansburg, NY: The Crossing Press, 1984.
ISBN# 0-89594-140-6

Comments by Bob Corbett
October 2003

I enjoyed my read of this book, however, at the same time I regard it as one of the worst NOVELS I have read in years. A bit of explanation is needed. This is a book set in Jamaica in 1958. The central character (to the extent there is a character) is a 12 year old girl, Clare. She is the daughter of a white Jamaican father with English roots, and a Hispanic mother, a woman of color.

Since I lived in the Bahama Islands from 1962-1964, and have been to Haiti countless times, I was very interested in the memories of life in those two places which the book on Jamaica would raise for me. It was particularly useful in doing this regarding the Bahamas. The two nations have much in common. Both were British colonies, both were in the process of getting their freedom from colonial status in that period, and the cultures are quite similar. There were not the same degree of similarities to Haiti, but the class/color problems which pervade ABENG are present in much the same way in Haiti.

Thus the book interested me and I read it mainly with delight, finding it informative, accurate concerning historical and sociological/anthropological details and a great source of prompting to my memories.

However, I found it simply awful as a novel. There was virtually no character development and almost nothing that counted as “story” in any significant sense. Rather, I felt I was reading an accurate and interesting sociology or anthropological text. A few words about Clare and her family would come up, then it was like: now it’s time for the information about markets in Jamaica, and we would switch into a digression to do the next “theme” in the text book. All of this was couched as though it was the story of a 12 year old girl, but to this reader she was the most lifeless, unreal character I have encountered in a novel in several years.

Clare, to the extent that she is supposed to be real, fails miserably for me. She is the perfect little girl, growing up in a big bad world where all have conspired for centuries to make life oppressed for the Jamaican people. Only Clare is decent and good and she has these sophisticated philosophical and political realization, all the while the author is telling us how naďve and unaware she is. She seems to be the paragon of the author’s ideal of feminist consciousness and her version of political progressiveness.

Late in the book there is a section which I thought was well-written fiction. Clare is visiting her maternal grandmother in the countryside. She has a close black Jamaican friend (of whom her father would not at all approve). Clare is coming into puberty and discovering new things about herself and the world. She decides to prove she is somewhat grown-up and courageous and takes her grandmother’s gun and ammunition to hunt a legendary wild pig in the area. In a terrible confusion of things, she ends up killing her grandmother’s bull. The writing in this section was, for me, so different from most of the book. I was into the person and she was not merely a shill for text book material on Jamaica, but we were inside a living breathing, growing and learning little girl. I enjoyed that short section a great deal.

I did have a great laugh at one anachronism. We are told this event happened in 1960 in Jamaica. “She took grandmother and granddaughter up to U.C.W.I. hospital so Doreen could be examined, because Miss Haverhill was concerned that the school might be liable for any lasting injury.” I howled aloud while reading in my coffee shop. The notion that in the 1960s this crazy notion of “holding liable” in a court of law was already in place was just a delight to me. I can remember the things that went on in the elementary school in which I taught in the Bahamas. There were so many events and conditions which today would have landed the entire school establishment in courts of law, in the 1960s not one of us would have had the slightest idea of this later notion of “liability.” Small change here, but it did delight me since it pointed out how “natural” we take this notion of running to courts for all our problems. We forget what a new notion this is and how it now pervades virtually all acts in society.

My experience of this book did push me to consider what it is I think went wrong in this book that tells me on the front cover is “a novel.” The book seems to me accurate in its picture of Jamaica, very interesting, the bits and pieces of sociology and anthropological detail seemed well-told. I realize that I have in mind a difference between a good story teller and a novelist. I think I am a decent story teller. Often in conversation something will remind me of an event that might illustrate some general notion we are talking about. I will then launch into this “story” and as story it will often grab the listener, enlighten the issue and entertain. People tell me they like my stories. But if I were to tell 50 of them in a row about the same theme – say, in my case Haiti, which I know better than the Bahamas where I was for those two years 40 years ago – they would amount to 50 related but separate stories and not a “novel” about Haiti. In a novel I have in mind a continuous story with developed characters and in a good novel I expect both the story to be gripping and exciting and the characters to be real and compelling. Both the story and character development of ABENG seemed to me quite weak.

Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu

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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu