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A look into author Hackshaw’s first novel Mrs B
Emma Bovary, the leading lady of Gustave Flaubert’s sensational first novel Madame Bovary (1856), had only one child, a girl; but in her restless life and grim death Emma gave birth to many thousands of other girls who grew up to become bold, if sometimes misguided, women. Despite Emma’s thin intellect, tawdry choices, and dismal mess of a suicide, many of these “children” saw in her the essence of their dilemma as suppressed seekers of freedom in the modern world. Evidently, more than 150 years after Emma’s “death” she still means much to many people. Elizabeth Walcott-Hackshaw readily admits on the cover of Mrs B that this book (her own first novel) about a contemporary woman, set in Trinidad, was inspired by Flaubert’s major work. Madame Bovary begat Mrs B.
The resemblance between the two works pretty much ends there. The differences between Emma Bovary and Elena Butcher (Mrs B) are far more compelling than the similarities. While both heroines have a husband named Charles, Elena has had only one lover. Moreover, he served as such for a few months only, and their affair was long over—though never forgotten by Elena—when the novel ends just after her 49th birthday. Unhappy with both her lapse from wifely fidelity and her mediocre husband (she calls him to his face a “frigging coward”), Elena wants no more sexual dalliances. Sex cannot curb, much less cure, her chronic pain.
Also unlike Emma Bovary, a lust for money does not bedevil her. She has lots of money and spends it freely. Moreover, with her “light macadamia-coloured skin,” straight hair, and French-Creole family ties she has the social cachet to operate as a top dog in Trinidad. (One of her two closest friends has “very fair, almost milky skin”; her ex-lover looks “very white” next to some black people; and his wife has “thick, dirty-blond hair.”)
Still Elena is unhappy. Her pain stems from her suffering as an “only-child, lonely-child” at the hands of her selfish, snobbish, cynical mother, Simone, who essentially abandoned her as a child and from whom she is now permanently estranged. Even worse, both women are also aware that they have inherited a congenital tendency toward depression. Wriggling on her golden hook, Elena makes various petty adjustments that cannot alter her sad view of herself.
“She had achieved so little in her life,” she thinks mournfully, “and there seemed to be so little to look forward to.” When a rash of family troubles comes, she wallows in “this stew of shame, guilt, responsibility and blame.” As a result, Mrs B threatens at first to be a pitch lake of a book, unrelievedly bleak despite the surface glitter of Elena’s world. As seen by people of Elena’s class, Trinidad has become a monstrous place. The political leadership, including the black president, is horribly compromised. Sticking close to actual events in Trinidad’s recent history, including a suddenly imported commissioner of police, marauding Muslimeen, and an attempted coup d’etat, Mrs B reports on a collapsing society. The first sentence of the book reports on the latest atrocity that has occurred while incompetent police and intimidated citizens allow impunity to supplant the rule of law; and the atrocities pile up throughout the novel.
To be sure, the island has its charms. The sun shines and shines, birds twitter, the poui blooms almost magically. Maracas Bay and the Savannah soothe and inspire, as do Monos, Huevos, Gasparee, and other settings of “down-the-islands” pleasures that cater to the likes of Elena and her relatives and friends, who own houses there and elsewhere. Also readily available are more plebeian joys such as roti, doubles (light pepper, please!), and bake-and-shark, as well as “wining” and grinding on the streets at Carnival.
But these pleasures come at an increasingly steep social cost. “We have an amazing culture of crime, corruption and carnival,” Elena remarks bitterly. “How lovely.” Moreover, despite the horrendous crimes and all those offsetting pleasures, to many people Trinidad is almost terminally boring. A young woman laments: “I so want to get out of this place. It’s just the same thing over and over again: same people, same faces, same limes, same s--t.”
The great fear driving this story is that the cancer of depression, of “falling into darkness,” that inhabits Elena and her mother will metastasise to claim the third generation of their family, represented here by Ruth, her troubled daughter. In fact, Ruth—“exhausted, haggard, distraught”—seems destined for a disaster worse than anything Elena and Simone have suffered. Leaving her university in the US, she limps back to Trinidad after a failed attempt at suicide and the onset of a pregnancy resulting from her affair with a smooth-talking dog of a married professor (Ruth reflects bitterly on having been “a virgin freak at 21, saving it for Mr Perfect and ending up with Mr P---k.”)
Fired by a largely unspoken rage against the chilly Elena, Ruth struggles to save herself and her unborn baby. She knows how wily the enemy is, and reminds herself that the thought of suicide “had been there before her affair.” In Trinidad, she can rely on practically no one except an insouciant pal, Monique, who has problems of her own with men. Even Ruth’s conscience has become dulled. She sees around her the effects of racism and poverty but has become unsentimental about the poor, or about blacks and Indians, who have virtually no place in her mother’s world—or, indeed, her own. Aware of religious hypocrisy, she can’t confront it openly.
However, one possible guide to the moral life is close at hand, if only Ruth can see her for what she is. Her mother’s Aunt Claire, sister to the destructive Simone, is something of an oddball. Self-exiled from the giddy world of the Yacht Club, pampered down-the-islands excursions, and pricey meals at the latest trendy restaurant, Claire lives in a house that is notably small but quite sufficient for her needs. Not quite a saint, she believes deeply in forgiveness and love. When, near the end of Mrs B, her sister Simone sinks into a life-threatening depression in Ft Lauderdale, where she lives with her husband, Claire sets aside any resentment at Simone for her habitual cruelty and flies north to aid and comfort her. Elena, however, refuses to budge from Trinidad.
Claire has much to teach Ruth because her serenity was earned the hard way. Although Mrs. B gives us few specifics, we know that Ruth had endured more then her fair share of humiliation by men in Trinidad. She refused to allow such episodes to embitter and define her. But Claire possesses another quality that sets her apart from virtually everyone else in the novel—except, tellingly, Ruth. She loves to read good books—books old and new, home grown, as in works by Sam Selvon or Jean Rhys, or from beyond the Caribbean. The link between habitual, discriminating reading and a reliable moral sense is a core value in Mrs B. With a smile, Claire pronounces the world as divided between “the readers and non-readers: the only problem is the non-readers rule the world.”
Certainly they seem to rule Trinidad. It is telling that the unhappy Elena Butcher, once a fervent reader, somehow allowed herself to drift away from books. (Now and then she finds them useful, as when she turns one evening to an old Caribbean history text because “hopefully this book would put her to sleep.” It does.) Ruth, on the other hand, can’t live without them.
If this novel is quick to drop consumerist names —Audi, Lancôme, Blue Mountain coffee, etc.—it rains the titles of books and authors on the reader. This link between Claire and Ruth triggers in the reader the hope that Ruth, too, will survive her ordeal and emerge a healed woman. She would then embody the self-consummation, devoutly to be wished, at the heart of the celebrated poem by Derek Walcott, Love After Love (“The time will come,” it begins), that Ruth tries to recall on returning to Trinidad. The poem speaks to the core challenge that is Mrs B—how to succeed, as far as we can do so, in eventually knowing and loving ourselves, after the terrible things we’ve done to ourselves and to others in our passage through life. (Ironically, her charming professor-seducer introduced Ruth to the poem.)
Following her admirable debut as a fiction writer in 2007 with her short-story collection Four Taxis Facing North, Elizabeth Walcott-Hackshaw takes a major step forward with Mrs B. A shrewd, unblinking moralist, she dissects the culture before her with a dedicated accuracy. Her focus on the psychology and moral disposition of a cast of privileged women, for the most part, as well as some of their men, expands the field of fiction in recent Caribbean writing. In some respects it is an act of courage as well as wisdom for her to have done so.
But Mrs. B. is also richly entertaining. Leaving the quest for the celebrated mot juste (or precise word) to Flaubert’s epigones, Walcott-Hackshaw offers a vigorous, at times sizzling, prose that is grounded in local rhythms and allusions entirely appropriate to the culture that is at once both the object of her love and also her main target.
MRS B: A NOVEL, by Elizabeth Walcott-Hackshaw (London: Peepal Tree Press, 2014)
Arnold Rampersad is Professor Emeritus in the Humanities at Stanford University, California
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