Tales of Love and Disaster
A British writer's original fiction
By Tanya Stanciu

From Gadfly March 1999


When it comes to describing Pauline Melville's writing, broad categories like "postcolonial" and "magical realism" spring to mind. But keep away from these labels. They're too restrictive to encompass her highly unusual prose. After all, what really matters isn't a label but the reading experience, and it's far more accurate simply to say that a newcomer to Melville will be a traveler of sorts, experiencing an alien land.

Today a Londoner, Melville grew up across the ocean, in Guyana, just north of the Equator in South America, where she was raised by a British mother and a father of mixed-race descent. If you don't know anything about Guyana, a former British colony which didn't become independent until 1966, names like Georgetown, the Essequibo, the Demerara and the Rupununi and references to flora and fauna won't help place the events of her stories. But geographical illiteracy won't stop readers from turning the pages.

Melville makes many of her stories deliberately vague in setting; she conceals information so that the plot unfolds slowly, suspensefully. Her carefully crafted, gradually unwinding plots challenge us to figure out the "real story" for ourselves. For example, "You Left the Door Open," from Shape Shifter (published in 1990), is a chilling story about a woman who experiences a terrifying encounter with an intruder in her home and afterwards wonders if, psychologically, she somehow invited the malevolent stranger in.

Much of Melville's writing is inspired by the people and events she observed while growing up in Guyana, a former British colony which didn't become independent until 1966. As a little girl and a teenager, Melville witnessed the complicated social problems of a nation locked in a desperate struggle to modernize and overcome its imperialist past. Today, an astounding number of cultures coexist in the region, in varying degrees of amicability, from European to Amerindian and African to East Indian, and the Guyanese have dealt with poverty, pollution and shortages of basic commodities, including electrical power.

Melville has been a comedian, a cigarette girl, a teacher and an actress. She's worn many hats, but her most significant contribution to the public is her fiction. Two short-story collections and a novel have shown her to have a strong and confident voice and the keen eye of a satirist. Her first volume, the short-story collection Shape Shifter, won three major literary awards in Britain, and in 1997 her novel, The Ventriloquist's Tale, won the prestigious Whitbread First Novel Award. Now, with Bloomsbury's publication of the novel and a third book, another short-story collection, The Migration of Ghosts (published in 1998), in the United States, American readers can enjoy her direct yet lyrical writing.

You might be halfway through The Migration of Ghosts before you appreciate just how clever it is, for each tale is a slyly disguised ghost story. Some of the ghosts are real people who live shadowy lives: a dying woman, an anorexic, an escaped prison inmate who haunts a wealthy family. Some are more conventional: the dead people honored at a funeral ceremony in the final story, "English Table Wuk," or the two different kinds of spirits that stand between a husband and wife in the title story.

"On the morning of the fiftieth anniversary of her husband's death, Doña Rosita awoke and decided to do things differently," opens "La Duende," one of the collection's loveliest tales, in which an eighty-two-year-old widow decides to put on her dancing shoes again. At the story's climax, the old woman dances in a tavern, and something remarkable happens:

"The duende only appears at certain moments," whispered the young student who had been sitting at Doña Rosita's table boasting to his girlfriend. He professed to know about such things. "It's a gust of air, an irrepressible instant; a ghost suddenly appears and vanishes and the world is re-born." Others were in the same state, throwing their programmes in the air. A sort of madness took hold of everybody. Strangers hugged one another. There were yells and whistles and the stamping of feet on the wooden boards of the floor lasted a full five minutes.

Doña Rosita's dancing summons something eternal and wild, and a roomful of people are transformed.

Another story, "Lucifer's Shank," recounts a similar transformation. The narrator's best friend is dying of cancer, and at first the story seems to be a run-of-the-mill tear-jerker. But this story, too, opens up in a startling moment:

Eventually, and unexpectedly, a strikingly beautiful empress took up her position on the bed with an expression of relaxed and heavy disdain. A tragic sensuality emerged, the bloom of power weighted with the burdens of dictatorship.... A little while before Ellie died, her eyes opened and stared at nothing, beautiful glazed grey-blue eyes, lolling like heavy blooms on stalks.

Even though she is dying, Ellie, amazingly, blooms. While seemingly realistic, all of Melville's tales contain a sense of magic and otherworldliness.

Another of Melville's gifts is satire, and throughout her fiction she is critical of prejudice, rudeness and arrogance. Some of her best comic characters are zealous and overserious; they puff themselves up with a false sense of superiority, believing they're better than other people because of pedigree or intellectual bearing. Melville also writes admiringly of the courage of ordinary people; she writes tenderly of well-meaning men and women who do their best to carry on with dignity in circumstances that are less than ideal.

One of these characters, the protagonist of The Ventriloquist's Tale, is a good-natured Amerindian who, in the novel's opening, leaves his family behind at their home in the savannah to work in the city so that he can earn money to rebuild the family cattle farm (their herd has been disastrously destroyed by bats). The novel is a complex account of what happens when different cultures collide, either when two people from foreign cultures meet or when different cultural influences wage a kind of battle within a single person. In these self-described "tales of love and disaster," Melville presents two concentric love stories, both of them shocking, forbidden and doomed: one between a man and woman completely foreign to each other, the other between a man and woman who could hardly be more the same. It's a charming, quirky novel—and although it takes place in Guyana, even the famous British writer Evelyn Waugh is in it.

"Pauline Melville writes with an unusually dispassionate lushness that is both intellectual and sensual," notes Salman Rushdie. "By taking a notably cool look at an extremely steamy story, she has created an eye-opening fiction. I believe her to be one of the few genuinely original writers to emerge in recent years." Readers would do well to keep their eyes open for more of Melville's offbeat, magical fiction.