It was foolish to think some things were beyond happening

The Secret Life of Bees
by Sue Monk Kidd

A few years back a publisher sent me a book on spec that I completely fell in love with: The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd. I have been meaning ever since to go back to her famously popular debut novel. As her previous writings were spiritual memoirs, she’s not an obvious candidate for my fandom, but this book also really hit the spot for me.

It’s the story of Lily, a 14-year-old white girl who lives on a peach farm in South Carolina with her perpetually angry father. She may or may not have accidentally killed her mother when she was four. Either way, there’s not a lot of affection in her life and what little there is comes from her black housekeeper Rosaleen. When Rosaleen spits tobacco on the shoes of white men who are racially abusing her, she is arrested and Lily’s father refuses to bail her out. Lily fears for Rosaleen’s life in police custody so she busts her out and they run away together.

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The true India slid by unnoticed

passage to indiaA Passage to India
by E M Forster

This is the second time I’ve tried reading this book and I almost didn’t finish it again, but this time I was near the end when I got a little bored. For the most part I found it gripping and beautifully written, if a little troubling when it comes to race and politics.

The thing is, it’s a story about how problematic colonialism can be; effectively it’s about racism, and yet it itself reads as racist. It was written in the 1920s so that wouldn’t normally be a surprise, but when Forster has taken race as a central theme you’d think he’d have the self-awareness to avoid his own racist remarks. Unless they’re all intended ironically, which is a possibility, but in that case the point being made is just as obscured as if it were not ironic.

“She continued: ‘What a terrible river! What a wonderful river!’ and sighed. The radiance was already altering, whether through shifting of the moon or of the sand; soon the bright sheaf would be gone, and a circlet, itself to alter, be burnished upon the streaming void. The women discussed whether they would wait for the change or not, while the silence broke into patches of unquietness.”

The story centres around Dr Aziz, a young Indian doctor in British-run Chandrapore (a fictional city in north-east India). He is well liked by everyone and has a large circle of close friends from different religions, different backgrounds. So it is doubly surprising when he is accused of assault by newly arrived Englishwoman Adela Quested.

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A benign immensity of unstained light

Heart of Darkness

Heart of Darkness
by Joseph Conrad

Perhaps if I had come to this book with no surrounding knowledge my response to it would be different, but I’ve read Chinua Achebe’s essay and many other articles on the subject so I came to this looking for the racism. That said, I think it’s pretty hard to ignore. The question is: is it still a good book, even so?

This is a short, readable book but I’d have to say it’s not gripping because I often found the floweriness of the writing disguised the action – it’s essentially an adventure story but you’d almost not notice that from the style. It is very descriptive – the kind of writing where you can miss the plot moving on because you’re mesmerised by the words.

“The day was ending in a serenity of still and exquisite brilliance. The water shone pacifically; the sky, without a speck, was a benign immensity of unstained light; the very mist on the Essex marshes was like a gauzy and radiant fabric, hung from the wooded rises inland, and draping the low shores in diaphanous folds. Only the gloom to the west, brooding over the upper reaches, became more sombre every minute, as if angered by the approach of the sun.”

What is the plot? An unnamed narrator on a boat on the River Thames introduces fellow crew member Marlow, who in turn tells his story of a job he took in Africa to transport ivory, having had a whim to go on a voyage of discovery like the great explorers. Marlow describes his journey from Europe to Africa, around the coast, then inland by various means (the destination is unnamed but widely agreed to be Congo, where Conrad had himself worked as a riverboat captain for a trading company) until he reached the station where he was to captain a riverboat, only to find that the riverboat has been wrecked and he must rebuild it before he can start his job. Urgency is added by reports that Mr Kurtz, the manager of a remote station upriver, is gravely ill and Marlow needs to fetch him as soon as possible. Kurtz is a bit of a legend within the Company and Marlow feels that their fates became dangerously entwined.

Because this is a story within a story, it can be difficult to decipher the book’s attitude toward Africans. Yes, there are plenty of racist things said, but we hear them through the filter of not one but two narrators – so is this a comment on how European trading companies saw Africans or is it Conrad’s own opinions?

“They howled, and leaped, and spun, and made horrid faces; but what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity – like yours – the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar. Ugly. Yes, it was ugly enough; but if you were man enough you would admit to yourself that there was in you just the faintest trace of a response to the terrible frankness of that noise, a dim suspicion of there being a meaning in it which you – you so remote from the night of first ages – could comprehend.”

To be clear, we’re not just talking about racist language that might be deemed “of its time” and therefore to an extent excusable. We’re talking about language that characterises many of the Africans as lesser beings, as supernatural monsters or as inferior idiots. And while Marlow develops a fondness for at least one African member of his riverboat crew, he also states that it was wrong to train this man to do a job, that it is somehow an unnatural pretence.

On the other hand, the Company’s treatment of natives appears to be condemned by Conrad, as he describes in clearly negative language enslaved Africans and the devastating effect of the trading routes on the settlements that they pass through or near. Marlow certainly shows no love for the Company in general, finding fault with most of its employees whom he meets and struggling to bite his tongue in the face of nepotism, incompetence and corruption.

An added level of ambiguity comes from the dreamlike, or rather nightmarish, quality of the story as a result of Marlow’s psychological state. The unfamiliar heat, lack of sufficient food and recurrent illness combine with a growing fear of attack (which is in fairness justified as the riverboat and its crew are indeed attacked) to create a kind of madness. The Company sends Marlow to see a doctor before he leaves Europe and the doctor does a psychological assessment, stating that he finds the effects of such voyages on Europeans to be “scientifically interesting”. Fairly early on in his travels in Africa, Marlow states that he feels he is becoming “scientifically interesting” (it’s one of my favourite moments in the book). So by his own admission he is therefore unreliable.

“No fear can stand up to hunger, no patience can wear it out, disgust simply does not exist where hunger is…Don’t you know the devilry of lingering starvation, its exasperating torment, its black thoughts, its sombre and brooding ferocity? Well, I do. It takes a man all his inborn strength to fight hunger properly. It’s really easier to face bereavement, dishonour and the perdition of one’s soul – than this kind of prolonged hunger.”

Of course this actually raises more questions. If this degree of psychological imbalance is common in western Europeans who travel to central Africa, is that an excuse for some of the behaviour depicted? Is it a comment on the continent itself – a place that sends men mad? Or is it simply an honest observation of people going there ill equipped for the conditions? (Which would, thinking about it, be further condemnation of the Company, as it was responsible for the wellbeing of its employees.)

I can certainly see how so many books, essays, articles and theses have been written about this book, as there is far more I could say about these subjects and more. But for me it comes down to quality of writing, and on that count Conrad scores fairly high. The writing is gorgeous and atmospheric. I suspect I could pick out any line and it would be a great quote. Perhaps the story would benefit from more straightforward language but the prose would not.

“Do you see the story? Do you see anything? It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream – making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is the very essence of dreams.”

Which, overall, leaves me predictably on the fence about this one. I’m glad I’ve read it but I can’t say I side wholly with Conrad’s detractors or his defenders. I got the uncomfortable feeling that he was objecting to the mistreatment of Africans much as he might object to dogs or horses being beaten, overworked, made homeless, etc. But it’s hard to deny that it’s a beautiful piece of writing.

Have you read this? What did you think?

Originally published 1899 in Blackwoods Magazine.

Source: Project Gutenberg.

Challenges: This counts toward the Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge.