David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Richard Hughes: A High Wind in Jamaica

Once fully convinced of this astonishing fact, that she was now Emily Bas-Thornton (why she inserted the “now she did not know, for she certainly imagined no transmigrational nonsense of having been any one else before), she began seriously to reckon its implications.

First, what agency had so ordered it that out of all the people in the world who she might have been, she was this particular one, this Emily: born in such-and-such a year out of all the years in Time, and encased in this particular rather pleasing little casket of flesh? Had she chosen herself, or had God done it?

The sheer oddness of this book really defies summary. The choice of Henry Darger for the cover picture is, as Dan Schank commented, entirely appropriate for this wispy tale of young children on a benevolent pirate ship, and the ensuing lost innocence, etc. But the book pulls in other directions simultaneously; hints of developing sexuality have to contend with the metaphysics of the passage above and one very bizarre murder. And what is one to make of this offhand paragraph?

Mathias shrugged. After all, a criminal lawyer is not concerned with facts. He is concerned with probabilities. It is the novelist who is concerned with facts, whose job it is to say what a particular man did do on a particular occasion: the lawyer does not, cannot be expected to go further than to show what the ordinary man would be most likely to do under presumed circumstances.

The novel throws off odd sparks like this one regularly, and despite the closeness the narration eventually takes to Emily’s inner voice, the narrator asserts himself (and it’s definitely a he) as a separate and adult voice throughout. I can’t come to a general sense of how the child and adult voices mix, but it does appear that the adult narrator is moving towards the same tactile emotional sensitivity that Emily encounters as she moves into adolescence. (She is 10.) So when this paragraph rises up in an otherwise pedestrian scene–

There is a period in the relations of children with any new grown-up in charge of them, the period between first acquaintance and the first reproof, which can only be compared to the primordial innocence of Eden. Once a reproof has been administered, this can never be recovered again.

–the novel seems to have thoroughly inhabited the child’s state of mind, which stretches outward to contort the novel into unreal and fable-like shapes. It may bear a slight resemblance to Nabokov’s darker fairy tales like Despair and Bend Sinister, but mostly its world is its own.


  1. When I was little, we had a splendid and unsettling book of children’s short stories by Richard Hughes: children who grew in their bath into giants, a country contained within a glass ornament into which one could escape, a girl who’s abducted by a giant spider . . . thassit, The Spider’s Palace it was called. Recommended to your offspring.

  2. bhikku: spurred by your rec, I found a tattered copy of The Spider’s Palace (a spotted nursery-yellow hardback with a badly peeling spine), because I had never heard of it, and A High Wind in Jamaica is one of my favorite books, though I admit to not making much headway in The Wooden Shepherdess, the first book of Hughes’ supposed magnum opus, and unfinished trilogy of 30s Britain, reissued by NYRB not too long ago… In Hazard is gripping and effective but not magical, like HWJ. Hughes once said his tactic to writing was figuring out what to leave out; hardly an original-sounding observation on its own, but interesting to consider in the cases of HWJ and In Hazard, if perhaps a bit easier in the latter. In any comparison between HWJ and Lord of the Flies, surely HWJ would win at being at once more astute, damning, and forgiving toward the complexities of children… but the world around them has changed.

  3. read the spider’s palace on bhikku’s rec too, and loved it … i agree with edward about in hazard, but TOTALLY loved the fox in the attic (which is the first book); the wooden shepherdess is almost as good but not quite. edward, maybe you started with the wrong book? the beginning of the fox in the attic is so chilling and stately and grave, i can’t imagine not making headway… gushily, m.g.

  4. I’m almost done reading this story. I don’t find the language to be that odd, but again I write in an odd way too. I’ll let you know my take on it once I’m finished!

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