March 22, 2013

Book Review: Huracan by Diana McCaulay

"White gal!" the barefoot man shouted, pointing at her with a half empty bottle of white rum. He wore a vest and torn shorts and his eyes glared. Leigh McCaulay turned her head away--it was a familiar, damning description echoing from her childhood. She watched the traffic light, which remained on red (11).

In Diana McCaulay's latest novel, Huracan, the phrase "white gal" serves as a catalyst for Leigh McCaulay, the protagonist, to reconcile the atrocities of white colonialism with her relationship to the landscape and black people of Jamaica. Taking its title from the Taino word for "storm," the novel weaves together two centuries of reimagined family history and uses the leitmotif of the hurricane to explore the complexity of white identity in a black nation.

From the first encounter with the barefoot man, the racial tensions are evident. In an interesting list of adjectives that suggests moral equivalency, Leigh cannot find the correct word to describe him: "He tipped the bottle of white rum to his head and Leigh could see his throat muscles working. How to describe him -- poor man, sufferer, black man, rum head, bhuto, Jamaican man?" (11). The "light which remained on red" also serves as an apt metaphor for Leigh's connection to the island. Since childhood, Leigh has been stuck in emotional paralysis, unable to resolve her relationship with black Jamaicans. In her childhood, it was easier to disappear: "Then she had burned her skin in the sun, hoping to pass for brown, wanting unremarked passage" (22).

However, with the mysterious death of her mother and return from America, Leigh contends with the familiar contradictions: "In Jamaica, people like her had the freedom of an abundant land, but in America she had the freedom to be one of the people" (39). Added to this is Leigh's outsider status as prodigal.

"Fine, Father," she said.  "It's good to be home." This last statement was expected. Jamaicans who had never left the island expected deference from the prodigals. They, the faithful, had stuck it out -- the politics, the crime, the poverty. The flirtation with socialism, the austerity programmes, the empty supermarket shelves. They had not run. They had not had the benefit of a foreign education. They were the born yahs, grow yahs, never left yahs. They were the tough ones, the ones who deserved Jamaica (26).

As she begins to reacclimate herself with Jamaican life and the details of her mother's death, Leigh becomes romantically involved with Danny, a young black Jamaican man. She crosses the "color line" that her forebears, Zachary McCaulay, a bookkeeper on a sugar plantation, and John McCaulay, a Baptist missionary, had to confront in the course of their family's history in the island. All three characters must resolve their status within a system of white privilege--sometimes at the cost of their humanity. Throughout the novel, Leigh and her ancestors make the mistake of transgressing the trappings of white privilege and have to be reminded of their position in society

"So," Bannister said, "how are you finding Fortress?"
"Quiet. Few people at service last Sunday. No horse available here -- I'll have to make a trip to Falmouth for that I'm told."
"You should do that as soon as possible. It's unseemly for you to be seen walking. You'll never gain the natives' respect if you're seen on foot too often" (129).

If crossing the "color line" revealed the characters' conflicts with the culture, then their encounters with hurricanes exposed their deepest motivations. The hurricane unmasks the characters' compassion or lack.  The eye of the hurricane is a moment of transformation, and in the case of Zachary McCaulay, the cause of his epiphany comes from an unlikely source, Madu, the African:

         "Wait!" he said. "I telt ye, I will buy your freedom. Dinna risk the forest and the Maroons. Come back wi me and I will tell them what happened. Please."
         "You caan' buy me freedom," she said. "Not fi you to buy.' She left him then and in seconds he could not see her, nor hear her passing. He had not told her he was grateful (237).

Madu, or Victoria, as the planters would like to call her, represents the indomitable African spirit than runs counter to the fa├žade of white privilege of the plutocracy. Madu will not be a slave. Zachary's recognition of Madu's humanity leads him to other discoveries which are similar to Leigh's after her experience of the hurricane: "Jamaicans--we Jamaicans -- she thought, we tek serious ting and mek joke" (284).

The code shifting from Standard English to patwa is pitch perfect and signals Leigh's' movement from paralysis to wholeness. She can identify with Jamaica's story and has written herself into the narrative of the island.

Huracan is a courageous novel. McCaulay's deft characterizations and ability to weave of plot lines across two centuries demonstrate her talents as a remarkable storyteller and witness to uncomfortable truths. Huracan reminds us that in the midst of slavery there were individuals who were willing to transgress the boundaries of the color line and claim their humanity--a lesson that Leigh McCaulay learns in the present and which sets her free.

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