Thursday, December 23, 2010

Book 41, Montserrat: "The Three Suitors of Fred Belair" by E. A. Markham

Yeah, I'm done with this book now. Don't read it.

Not that it's entirely unenjoyable. But it's basically the rather autobiographical scribblings of an old, very erudite, very privileged man making his way through an international academic world: Dublin and Paris and London and Boston and Amherst and DC, a few memories of the south of France.

The main character's a poet called Pewter (who somehow morphs into the author himself by the end of the book, with a eulogy to his brother etc). Bits about sestinas and Pliny the Elder. Not entirely uninteresting but he supplies very little reason for us to care about him. Pfah. The eponymous Winifred Belair appears at the beginning, a 40-something bachelorette French teacher who's lived in Martinique and Paris who puts ads in literary journals to meet some serious suitors: there's some nice fictional high-jinks involving strong, spirited women at the beginning, but then we're in the world of intellectual aristocrats again. Yawn.

(We never even hear what happened to her in the end, after she's held hostage in Martinique by her family when she announces her desire to adopt an African child. Really, you'd think this should have been resolved? But then Markham died a year before the book was published, so maybe this is just a scrap-heap of a volume?

I might have been much better off with his other volume, Meet Me in Mozambique, which seems to include a little more time in the West Indies, and actually precedes the events of this book. But then I didn't like the opening pages, so.)

Ah, something interesting: I couldn't tell what race Pewter and Fred Belair were for a lot of the book: they're just incredibly *white* in terms of their education and family status: tweed and hors d'oeurvres and quiet senescent neurosis and only the odd comment about Henry Louis Gates Jr or Ayaan Hirsi Ali thrown in. But they're black; that's made quite clear by the end. Odd that we're still at a point in our culture that we can't quite reconcile the image of the black man and the stuffy old fogey of a writer.

Also interesting, of course, is the fate of the fictional island of St Caesare, where Fred Belair lives. It's based on what happened in Montserrat: the capital was utterly destroyed in 1995, buried under volcanic ash, people evacuated to five continents and only returning in fits and starts, newly cosmopolitanised: a tale of international alienation happening on a not entirely developed tropical island in the Caribbean.

No tropical idylls here. Just post-apocalyptic exile and meanderings towards death.

And I don't mean that in a sexy way. Seriously. The book's not worth it.

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Representative quote: She still had friends, of course; from the good time that was pre-volcano. Now - well, now, was it something in the air; was it the volcanic ash that was addling their brains? Was it the sense that suddenly so much that you valued was taken from you, and you not exactly living in a war zone, you not being subject to some brutal human dictator with the sexual habits of a prophet? Suddenly, you had to reassess your life lived above the ash.

Next book: Maryse Condé's Who Slashed Celanire's Throat, from Guadeloupe. Next five authors are all world-famous literary heavyweights. It's gonna be good. :)

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