Dog-Heart by Diana McCaulay

Race & Class in Jamaican Fiction: Dog-Heart by Diana McCaulay

Dog-Heart tells the story of two Jamaicans from very different worlds. Sahara is a light-skinned “uptown” woman who runs a successful Kingston restaurant. Dexter is a poor, dark-skinned boy from the “ghetto” neighbourhood of Jacob’s Pen.

Dog-Heart tells the story of two Jamaicans from very different worlds. Sahara is a light-skinned “uptown” woman who runs a successful Kingston restaurant. Dexter is a poor, dark-skinned boy from the “ghetto” neighbourhood of Jacob’s Pen.

Dog-Heart tells the story of two Jamaicans from very different worlds. Sahara is a light-skinned “uptown” woman who runs a successful Kingston restaurant. Dexter is a poor, dark-skinned boy from the “ghetto” neighbourhood of Jacob’s Pen.

They meet one evening when Dexter is begging outside the cinema where Sahara and her son have just watched a movie. She is touched by his story (even though almost everything he tells her is a lie), and she decides to help him.

The rest of the novel follows the consequences of this unlikely relationship. It illustrates very well the problems that can occur when someone tries to help on an individual basis in a highly unequal society.

Dog-Heart by Diana McCaulay

I came across Dog-Heart by chance in a second-hand bookshop in Barbados, and I’m glad I did. It’s a very powerful story, told in alternating chapters from the points of view of both Dexter and Sahara. This is a very effective way of illustrating the divide that exists in Jamaica and many other unequal societies around the world. At times, the two of them seem to be on different planets, even though they live in the same city.

It’s a very convincingly drawn relationship, which I just discovered is because it’s based on Diana McCaulay’s own real-life efforts to help a real-life eight-year-old boy.

A recurrent theme in Dog-Heart is Sahara’s assumption that she knows what’s best for Dexter and his poverty-stricken family. Of course it’s better for him to stop begging outside the cinema and go instead to the high-quality boarding-school she’s picked out for him.

But neither Dexter nor his mother are stupid; they are just doing the best they can with very limited opportunities. What Sahara doesn’t realise is that Dexter is the main provider for the family, and if he goes off to boarding school, his two younger siblings will go hungry. Besides, they’d never be able to afford uniforms, books and all the other expenses—they barely even have shoes to wear.

There are lots of other similar situations, such as when Dexter’s mother spends what little money she has in a way Sahara disapproves of because she doesn’t understand the context they live in. So while Sahara views the family with a pity that’s tinged with moral judgment, Dexter and the family view Sahara and her strange dictums with bemusement.

It’s Sahara, though, who holds more power in the relationship. She is the one who brings over bags of groceries every Sunday, bags that they can’t afford to turn down. So they end up performing for her, doing and saying the things she wants to see and hear, just to keep the grocery bags coming.

However, the relationship is not all about control and performance. Sahara’s desire to help is sincere and well-founded, while Dexter and the family do start to develop a true affection for her as they get to know her better.

There’s a lovely analogy that Sahara uses when her friend Lydia tries to dissuade her from getting involved by telling her the issue of poor children in Jamaica is so huge that she can’t make any real difference on her own. She tells the story of a boy who goes out with his father and sees thousands of starfish washed up on the beach. When he picks one up and throws it back in the sea, his father tells him it’s pointless—there are so many, and he can’t possibly hope to make a difference.

“So the boy picks up another starfish and puts it in the sea. He says to his father, ‘I made a difference to that one.'”

So Sahara ploughs ahead on her mission to save Dexter from the streets, despite the naysaying of her friend and her own teenage son. And she does start to make a real difference: she gets Dexter and his brother Marlon into a good school, and although at first they struggle both academically and socially, they start to make some real progress. Her gifts to the family also help them to enjoy a slightly better, less desperate life.

The title of the novel is important. “Dog-heart” is a term used in the book for characters who are rotten to the core, beyond redemption. By showing us the early life of a boy who could easily become a “dog-heart” himself, I think McCaulay is reminding us that even dog-hearts were once young boys too. They made bad choices, but they also had bad circumstances. She’s showing us how people in horrific situations can become dog-hearts, and how that trajectory could perhaps be altered. She’s reminding us of something we seem more and more often to be forgetting these days: basic human compassion.

But still, there are limits to what an individual can do, when the societal odds are already so grimly stacked. Dexter has alluded several times in the early parts of the book to the violence and unpredictability of the world he lives in. For example, one boy at school has his hand chopped off by a local gangster who accuses him of stealing a pack of cheese crunchies from his girlfriend. And then there are observations like this:

“This is what everybody inna ghetto know: If anybody want kill you, white man, big man, policeman, area don, schoolmate, politician, shotta, anybody—them will just do it. Nobody can stop them and after, nobody will care… Man will kill you like a cockroach for reason no bigger than a domino game and that is the end—the end a everything.”

There are bigger forces at play, then, and they sweep through the characters in quite brutal and heart-breaking ways. Despite Sahara’s best efforts, it seems the distance between them is just too great to be bridged, the societal forces just too great to be overcome by individual acts of charity. It seems that her friend Lydia was right all along.

It seems that way, but that’s not quite true either. Although things turn quite bleak and Sahara doesn’t achieve the dream outcome she’d anticipated, her efforts are not futile either. She has changed Dexter, and he has changed her. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but there is a subtle element of hope in there amid the pain and disappointment. It turns out that she has indeed saved someone, but not at all in the way she’d intended.

Dog-Heart is a fascinating novel that really made me think about big themes like individual vs. collective activism, moral judgments of the poor, the intersection of race and class, the difficulty of bridging the social divide that inequality breeds, etc.

The book doesn’t provide easy answers either, but what I took from it was that even if you can’t help all the starfish get back to the sea, it’s still important to throw in as many as you can. And, at the same time, you also need to figure out why they beached in the first place and take collective action to change those circumstances so that in the future they can stay in the sea and swim around happily without needing your help.

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