A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes (New York Rev. Books, 1999).
The current revival of A High Wind in Jamaica encourages me to believe that we haven’t devolved to a state in which all novels about young people have to be market-driven absurdities in which every character (usually with some werewolf, Pekinese or waffle iron lurking inside) acts and thinks like a pre-teen in a cell phone commercial or a day-trading infant.
Perhaps the gleam of hope, however twisted, is due in part that the pirate Captain Jonsen and his mate Otto are adults and complicated in very different ways from the Bas-Thornton children whose adventures and trials drive the book’s primary narrative. When adults an author presents are simultaneously culpable and vulnerable, it may be harder to make the children formulaic. Of course, this novel originally appeared in 1929, so it may be closer kin to the children in The Turn of the Screw than to Twilight.
Anyone who knows neither the book nor the film version may be wincing a bit. Yes, it’s a tale of English children taken hostage by pirates, though a third of the book is devoted to their feral adventures on Jamaica under the loose supervision of their parents and to the aftermath of the captivity, either sequestering in the claustrophobic hold or larking about, free as chimps in the rigging. And what strange imp-children these are, especially ten-year-old Emily, who is just beginning to understand what it means to be a distinct person, a powerful “I” outside the games and roles she inhabits and who is the author of many of the inscrutable acts of violence and mercy. Pirates, yes, but Emily is no Jim Hawkins.
The novel presents these idiosyncratic and imaginative children first in the lush and exotic tropics, shaken by earthquakes, threatened by a hurricane, surrounded by servants and serpents and clueless English adults. They operate almost as a cult with its own system of taboos and holies, and the genius loci is a fierce cat named Tabby, assailed by wilder beings during a lightning fusillade, and who screeches about “with a tone of voice the children had never heard before and which made their blood run cold.” This is where Hughes goes over the top, as he often does, with language which still never quite loses its voltage and prevents the reader from believing this is an adventure story of the usual sort: “He seemed like one inspired in the presence of Death, he had gone utterly Delphic: and without in the passage Hell’s pandemonium ruled terrifically.” Not easy going, this syntax, but it serves as a reminder that the children have something of the demonic about them. The braid of innocence and wiliness have much to do with the flavor of this novel in which the pirate crew and the gaggle (or perhaps “pride”) of children alternate between peaceful playfulness and terrorizing one another.
Just as the pirates begin as exotics to the children, soon the children’s spontaneity and the complexity of their fantasies and gambits make them exotic to their captors. As in most approach-avoidance relationships, the power dynamics are bizarre, as are the unstable moral standards. As Francine Prose asserts in her introduction to this edition, the violence, betrayal and sexuality in this novel come at surprising times and in counterintuitive ways. Anyone who believes that Lord of the Flies reveals how children, becoming their own law, turn dark is in for a deepening sense of the mysteries of youth as the barque, whose name is never more permanent than its most recent paint job, suffers larger sea changes than its crew imagined possible.
Many readers will be familiar with the film version of A High Wind in Jamaica, which has its own virtues and shortcomings, simplifying the mysteries of dream and fever by presenting a superstitious crew always fearful that duppies from the dead will curse them. Anthony Quinn, perhaps channeling Zorba, makes for an intriguing rogue captain, but it’s not enough to make up for the loss of Emily’s consciousness, which creates most of the tone and texture of the novel – alternately hallucinogenic and rational, especially with its nautical riches.
As a novelist, Hughes is a peculiar mixture of craftsman, savant and amateur. He is capable of marvelous, hypnotic prose, but can also write a sentence like this: “But it was not her, it was the meal which raped Jose’s attention.” Even Homer nodded, but details also get tangled, as “the ship’s monkey” becomes the novel’s focus briefly and meets a startling end. Not long afterward another monkey appears, with no introduction or explanation. Most frustrating of all is the inconsistency or narrative voice. Throughout most of the tale, the narrator is allowed access to the minds of the characters, but at some junctures, he (or “it”) confesses in a manner reminiscent of Fielding that a particular motive or outcome is beyond his knowledge or understanding. And yet, the raw power and contained hysteria of the story make these errors forgivable.
What this book witnesses about decaying imperialism and the parallel decline of a certain brand of outlawry is mostly implicit, but delegates from the Wordsworth and Rousseau schools of natural childhood should beware. Though the narrator cites, and seems to concur with, Southey in his description of psychology as “the Art Bablative,” the novel is rife with invitations to unriddle the knots of personality amid the deceptions, inventions and misunderstandings that create a weather more discernible than typhoons and sweaty, becalmed nights on the bowsprit.
As the somewhat ineffectual pirate crew and the tribe of children come to accept their cohabitation at sea, the tale takes quietly shocking turns, mixing the intoxicating rum and luxuriant molasses of Jamaica, though which represents the hostage children and which the renegades is not so easy to say. One thing is certain: A High Wind in Jamaica is surprising, provocative, exciting and moving, a book that reminds us that some mysteries do not lend themselves to solution or resolution.