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by Rachel Manley

The title of Rachel Manley’s family memoir is odd at first, and therefore intriguing, but by the end it simply seems sentimental. Drumblair, rambling and idiosyncratic, was the house of Norman and Edna Manley, the author’s grandparents and the parents of her father Michael, Prime Minister of Jamaica for most of its post-independence years so far. Norman, a lawyer and Rhodes scholar, led Jamaica to independence in the 1950s; Edna was a renowned sculptor. To the child Rachel, Drumblair was a magical house, and a member of the family. Like other members of the family, however, whom Manley describes admiringly through child’s eyes, Drumblair escapes the author’s adult reflections. Manley’s lack of comment on the house’s name – its aura of Highland romance and glory a perfect instance of the fascinating paradoxes of Europhilism and nationalism, elitism and populism in the Manley family – is typical of her uncritical and sometimes cloying love for family times past.

There is no doubt that Norman, Edna, and Michael Manley deserve admiration, and this “insider’s view” certainly has its sweet and private insights. Sections of the book detailing Norman’s devotion to the ill-fated Federation of the West Indies are interesting in the light of today’s conflicting nationalisms and trade pacts, and the accounts of Edna’s role in the creation of Jamaican art, or the death of Michael’s wife, are intimately drawn. However, the extended passages in which Manley puts herself into her grandparents’ heads do not explain or examine the passion and commitment they bore towards Jamaica and Jamaicans. Drumblair belongs to the family memoir genre of Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family or Sara Suleri’s Meatless Days; like these books, it is a literary portrait of a middle-class family in the colonies. However, Manley’s writing lacks the elegance and self-consciousness of Ondaatje’s or Suleri’s, and unlike these authors, Manley bears the burden of writing about a famous family. Reading Drumblair, one gets little feel for Jamaica beyond the trees of the estate, and without that context we can’t truly understand the private lives of these very public people.