Reading this book made me realise how much has changed, both in literature and society, in the half century since it was written. First of all, the writing struck me as extremely old-fashioned. For the first few pages, we learn nothing except that it’s the narrator’s ninth birthday and it’s raining. There are long, detailed descriptions of the rain, the house, the village, and still nothing happens. I could feel my impatience building. I didn’t care what colour the shingles were – I wanted to know who the story was about, what issues they were grappling with.
And then I remembered: novels used to be written this way. Start with the weather, then the roof, then fill in the walls and the furniture, sketch the village and the surrounding countryside, and only then get around to telling the story. I suppose it’s a form of writing that made sense in a less hurried age. I also think that, before TV and film, there was an acceptance of the fact that people needed a visual picture before they could start to listen to a story. Movies convey the visual stuff instantly, so can go straight into the story without delay, and I suppose at some point we began to expect the same of books. But for a long time, this is how novels were written – slowly, methodically, painting the background in painstaking detail before allowing any characters to come into the foreground.
When I remembered that, I enjoyed the book much more. I stopped waiting for something to happen and just enjoyed the descriptive prose, much of it beautiful. Finally around page 50, something like a plot began to form, and by about page 150 I was really into it. The long build-up had played an important part. By telling me about a whole load of irrelevant minutiae, Lamming had set me up to care about and believe in the characters, so that when things did eventually begin to happen, I felt much more of an emotional attachment than I expected.
Now onto the social change, which is a major theme of the book. The small Barbadian village in which the book is set is like something from another era altogether. The set-up is feudal, with the white plantation owner Mr Creighton owning the village and a strange relationship of mutual resentment and dependency between him and the villagers. He helps them when things are bad – for example when the village is flooded he pays for repairs – and he has a kind of paternalistic attitude of caring for them which they reciprocate with respect for him. But they also join a strike against him for unfair wages, and one of them is tempted to kill him during a riot. And when he’s had enough, he sells up.
The villagers have mostly saved up to buy their own houses, but don’t own the land on which the houses sit. So when Mr Creighton sells, they have to move, and the village is destroyed. Some of them try to move the houses, but they are old wooden houses and crumble when they are moved from the foundation blocks. It’s quite a tragic ending, and mirrors the boy’s gradual development from a nine-year-old boy to the verge of adulthood. He, like his boyhood friend Trumper, is planning to abandon the village and go abroad. The old man, known only as Pa, has to go to the poor house. Worst of all, the land has been bought by the penny savings bank into which they have been putting their own savings. It’s run by Mr Slime, a former teacher in the village who promised them they would own the land one day. To get enough money to buy all the land, he has to attract investors from outside the village, and of course they don’t care about the people and their families having lived on the land for centuries – they just want their own space to build a house of their own.
It’s very well communicated – I felt real anger at the injustice of the villagers’ situation, but also could empathise with Mr Slime and the other investors, who were coming out of poverty themselves and just wanted a piece of land to build a house and a middle class life. It was a betrayal, but I could understand them and empathise. The landowner Mr Creighton is not evil, either. It’s a good, complex situation, and Lamming’s great care in describing it all in so much detail means that it all feels real and believable in the end, and is quite emotionally affecting. Definitely glad that I persevered through all those pages of rain.