of Love and Disaster
A British writer's original fiction
By Tanya Stanciu
Gadfly March 1999
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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:
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.
Rosita's dancing summons something eternal and
wild, and a roomful of people are transformed.
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:
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.
though she is dying, Ellie, amazingly, blooms.
While seemingly realistic, all of Melville's tales
contain a sense of magic and otherworldliness.
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.
of these characters, the protagonist of The
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.
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.