THIS novel has been a long time in the making. Chris Dolan first visited Barbados 21 years ago, and became interested in the poor whites, known as Redlegs, many of Scots extraction.
Their ancestors had come to the island as indentured labourers; readers of Stevenson will recall that this was the fate intended by his uncle for David Balfour in Kidnapped. They worked on the sugar plantations, sometimes alongside black slaves. Then, when slavery was abolished, they had to compete with the freed slaves for employment. Many survived, scraping a living, and their descendants are still there, and still very often poor.
The idea of these exiled Scots attracted Dolan as the subject for a novel. He began to work on it soon after this first visit, set it aside several times in disappointment and discouragement, but seems never to have abandoned the idea. Now at last he has brought it to fruition and found an enterprising and sympathetic publisher. The delay was doubtless often dispiriting, but living with the story in his imagination for so long may have been to the benefit of the novel, which has matured like good wine. It is likely that Dolan might not have been capable of doing justice to his theme and story when he first conceived of them. Good things come to those who wait, and this is a good thing.
The novel begins in Greenock where a young girl called Elspeth sings and recites poetry in her family’s touring theatrical troupe. They perform in taverns and low dives, but Elspeth’s talent shines through. Her star turn, perhaps improbably, is a rendering of passages from “The Lady of the Lake”. She catches the eye of a travelling West Indian merchant, who goes by the name of Lord Robert Coak and who has established a theatre in Bridgetown, the capital of Barbados, for which he has great ambitions. His right to a title is dubious and there is something a bit creepy about Coak: when he invites Elspeth to an audition, he asks her to remove her clothes. In fact he never touches her, and we will come to see that he is a kindly and damaged man as well as an ambitious one.
He offers Elspeth a starring role in his theatre, and she sets off for Barbados, happy to be free of her family. Her first weeks there are delightful and full of promise. She also acquires a lover. Then a natural disaster strikes the island, and, half out of her mind, she finds her way to Coak’s plantation. Her theatrical career is on hold, and though Coak speaks often of reviving it, Elspeth experiences a panic attack whenever she ventures to the boundary of the estate.
The island itself is in turmoil after the British parliament abolishes slavery in 1833. Will the freed slaves still provide labour for the estate, or is it better to try to recruit white labour? But how to keep them? At Elspeth’s suggestion to Coak’s factor, the slightly sinister Captain Shaw, a religious zealot with fixed beliefs about eugenics and miscegenation, they import some 20 girls or young women from Scotland in the hope of creating a stable and self- sufficient community.
The action of the novel extends over more than 40 years with several highly dramatic scenes, and Dolan manages the transition of time admirably. This is always a difficult thing for a novelist to bring off; it is hard to get the right balance between big scenes and a continuous narrative. Dolan manages it by boldly skipping over swathes of time, while nevertheless maintaining coherence. The big scenes are exceptionally well done, none better than that which leads to the break-up of the community and disturbs Elspeth’s uneasy equilibrium.
There are a few weaknesses, as indeed there are in most novels. The cast is huge, and it is difficult for the reader to keep track of the Scottish women brought to Barbados to work and bear children. All are named, but only a few come across as individuals.
Nevertheless, this in an engrossing and compelling novel. The picture of the island life is vivid, the characterisation of the principal personages convincing, the elaboration of the narrative moving. As in many really good novels, there are small scenes which stick in the memory, one, for instance, in which Elspeth to her surprise and shame finds herself drawn to kiss an adolescent black boy on the cheek: “So plump and soft, the fascination and beauty of his skin lay not in its colour but its youthfulness. The lad smiled happily at her, but remained seated on his felled tree-trunk, the little sheep looking up at her. She moved to kiss his mouth, but the boy leaned gently aside, and, still smiling, left.”
This is admirably done, especially that “still smiling”; and there are many such passages, illuminating significant moments, and lingering richly in the memory, throughout this fine novel.
By Chris Dolan
Vagabond Voices, 248pp, £12.95