George Lamming — In the Castle of my Skin (1953)
Setting: Colonial Barbados in the throes of independence (pro-empire characters call it “Little England” in the book)
What it’s about: Through the lens of a coming-of-age tale we see a portrait of an entire colonial society: the regimented conformity of school and church, the remote superiority of the colonialist and the corruption of the local politician who rallies the village only to betray it in heart-breaking scenes at the end of the book.
It bursts with vivid characters, who tell the story as much as the autobiographical boy protagonist. The heroes are the simple villagers making their way through life, like “Pa” and “Ma”, an old couple who watch as the village changes forever.
This was a hugely influential book for a generation of Caribbean writers, not just because of the colonial and racial themes but the poetic, subtle way Lamming addresses them, and his own alienation from his society that results. Three boys spend a night horsing around on a beach, but in the telling it becomes a deep reflection on fear and fate, politics and class:
“When you up here, on a night like tonight you see how it is nothin’ could change in the village. Everything’s sort of in order. Big life one side an’ small life a next side, an’ you get a kin’ o’ feelin’ of you in your small corner an’ I in mine. Everything’s kind of correct.”
To read if you liked: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
The definitive Barbadian novel? Defining not only of Barbados but of post-colonial societies everywhere. More recently, see Lamming’s mentor Frank Collymore, or Nailah Folami Imoja’s Pick of the Crop (2004) a charming novella for a younger audience about a young man’s brush with local fame. Its a ode to calypso and the lost innocence of youth. Both books are from the peerless Caribbean Writers Series, which has produced some of the best books I have ever read, but seems to have run out of steam in recent years.
Rating: ** (deeply philosophical and political, without being academic)