Quill and Quire

REVIEWS

« Back to
Book Reviews

The Polished Hoe

by Austin Clarke

There are these rum advertisements that have been getting a lot of airplay in the U.K. recently. The commercials are set in a few tropical, sun-bleached locales in the West Indies and the action consists of locals going about their daily business – shopping for fruit, travelling on buses, buying clothing.

What’s unusual is that everyone involved acts in a distinctly “urban” manner. They chat loudly on cell phones and complain about two-vehicle gridlock on their dirt road. “Take a number,” a bewildered customer is told when he tries to buy a melon at a ramshackle fruit stand. It’s a nightmare version of the tropics. Just before the product shot at the end of the ad, an accented voiceover asks the viewer to contemplate the insanity of these scenarios and asks, “How could we make rum this good if we took life as seriously as the rest of the world?”

Austin Clarke’s latest novel, The Polished Hoe, makes a similar point. Life moves at a different pace in a small West Indian town on the island of Bimshire, even when there’s a killing to investigate. The novel is centred around a police confession. In most novels this would translate into bright lights, taut confrontations, successive glasses of hot coffee, and some variation on the good-cop/bad-cop combo.

The Polished Hoe contains none of these. Clarke’s characters drink rum and speak softly. In detective fiction, suspects are told to keep it short, stick to the facts. Here the opposite holds true. Over the course of a single night in 1952, the confession at the heart of The Polished Hoe unfolds, and while it does, everything from social history to the most painful childhood memories are brought out into the light.

The book is an excuse for digression. Though not entirely told from her perspective, most of the narrative is spun from the confession of Mary Mathilda, an older woman in the village who claims to have murdered the plantation owner, Mr. Bellfeels.

Mary’s relationship with Bellfeels has been uneasy for decades, since the moment he used a riding crop to inspect her young body, appraising the “fresh veal” while Mary’s mother stood by silently. She doesn’t know how she kept working for Bellfeels for 30 years, serving also as his mistress, or how, as she puts it, she “managed to stomach his weight laying on top of me all those years; breeding me and having his wish; and me smelling him; and him giving off a smell like fresh dirt….”

She gave him three children. While two died in infancy the third, a son named Wilberforce, went on to see the world before returning home to perform duties as an island doctor.

Mary begins her confession to a young constable, though most of it is given to Sargeant, the local police officer who has loved her from afar for years. Mary Mathilda is a fine creation, a woman so blustery and vivid in her recollections that the island and its people don’t need to be described again by the framing narrative. Her presence dominates the novel. She’s talking throughout it.

That urge to talk, to trawl over her entire life during the course of this one long night, is so strong that nothing can hold her back, not even the drooping eyelids of the young constable listening to her. “The night takes on the desultory pace of her words and of her recollections,” writes Clarke. “Realizing he’s fast asleep she continues talking nevertheless.”

With Mary’s recollections, Clarke is aiming for a verbose, crammed vision of Bimshire life. (The word Joycean is used in the promo material as if it were the sort of weightless description that could be tossed about). But for all of his masterful turns of phrase there’s a frustration that builds during the novel. Just when the plot begins to resurface, Clarke dives down into more sensual detail of “Wessindian” life. What is most frustrating about these digressions is that occasionally Clarke’s beautiful prose serves no purpose other than decoration. No matter how sweet Mary’s memories are, the urge to flip pages occasionally becomes even sweeter.

The Polished Hoe is, finally, a wonderful book to meander through. It adheres to the slow pace of the life it describes and allows characters room to become memorable. When Clarke returns to writing about this world, which we can only hope he does, let’s hope he remembers that speed and brevity, those qualities that seem so foreign to island life, also serve a useful role.