A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Michael Wyndham Thomas has not, as far as I can work out from a lot of elderly websites, featuring his poetry, music and short stories, yet published a novel. (UPDATE: yes he has! The Mercury Annual, and Pilgrims at the White Horizon.) His novella Esp – a nowherian’s tale took me a couple of hours to read, gripped on the sofa in that unexpected way when a book (on an e-reader, forsooth: normally I hate the things) takes you utterly by surprise and by the throat, pulling you instantly into a different place and time. It is stunning. (Another UPDATE: apparently a full novel based on Esp is nearly finished.)
The most compelling aspect of the story – 1970s Grenadian schoolboys suffer sadistic English teacher’s mind games in a rite of passage, which turns two of them into scholars, and one of them into a wayward musical genius – is that I swallowed the Grenadian narrative voice as if it was speaking straight from the author’s own experience. It was a bit of a shock when I checked Thomas’s biography and saw that he’s not only white, but not even Caribbean. There’s some damn fine channelling at work there, a really impressive feat of cultural translation. I also don’t think that it’s cultural or postcolonial appropriation: this novella speaks truths about growing up, and understanding the bonds of friendship and community by leaving, that are applicable to any social and cultural group. It could just as well have been set in Poland or the Philippines. The common factor is that the setting of Esp contains the shadowy recent history of a stronger power taking a hand in local politics. This offsets the uneasy sense of being a client nation, a country that is still too close to colonisation to be properly independent.
Esp is the nickname of Paul Belmar, a poet and singer in a group of teenage boys – the narrator Henderson Bray, Twinko the drummer, Eric the guitarist, and smiling Robbie on the sidelines – who play music as casually as they talk and laugh, and who respond passionately to the power of words. Their English teacher, Mr Headey, is a monster of casual verbal cruelty, routinely slashing their school essays with red-lettered criticisms that they display as a badge of pride. Esp attracts the longest criticisms, and takes his nickname from the ‘esp. this’, ‘esp. that’ that Headey hurls at him. The boys are goaded into creativity by this classroom pressure, and Esp leads their wordplay and music-making with adolescent genius, culminating in a classroom recital that ends with Headey dragging Esp off to a nameless and painful fate somewhere in the school. This changes him forever. Time passes, Henderson gets a scholarship to a Canadian university, Eric the economic genius goes to Bonn, Twinko and Robbie stay home and Robbie writes letters to keep everyone up to date. Fragments of news about Esp accumulate over the years; he’s a tramp with a guitar, he’s a musical genius, he plays a gig and disappears for months. When Henderson’s father is hospitalised, he comes home to see him transferred to rehabilitation, and then goes out with his old friends to see them play. Esp has come back into circulaiton, and there is a serious buzz about his talents. Robbie has set them up to play with Esp at a fashionable tourist hotel. There are unexpected tensions between the expectations of the demanding American tourists and Esp’s waywardness. Henderson’s passionate feelings about the music as it should be played, and his growing awareness of why Esp is singing protest songs to these tourists open up the story to a powerful politicised finish, blending madness and violence as a response to recent Grenadian history.
The story-telling in Esp is superb, and the control of dialect, information, mood and tone is just masterly. I don’t think I’m over-reacting to say that Thomas needs a three-book deal to release this kind of powerful writing to the world. More please, and in a longer form.
Kate blogs prolifically at katemacdonald.net.