Jacob Ross — Pynter Bender (2008)

Setting: A poverty-stricken sugar cane plantation in 1970s Grenada.

What it’s about: The story of a poet as a young man. A boy is born blind. When he recovers his sight he sees with a special ludicity, and discovers poetry in old discarded papers of his uncle. The first half of the book is his encounter with the nature around him and his gradual discovery of family secrets. In the second half, the wider world creeps in, as a repressive government sends soldiers to play cat-and-mouse with a young generation determined to challenge the exploitative status quo.

This is the story of how the boy breaks centuries-old cycle of poverty — the first in his line to learn to read and go to school. As his teacher tells him, it took him more than a hundred years to get to the school, and he didnt start the walk, and he is destined to leave behind and forget those who made his progress possible — “the riots and the burnings and the jail”.

He grows up in a community further-impoverished by mechanisation of the sugar cane plantation. Machines replace the men, so the men emigrate for work. Pynter grows up with his mother, aunts and grandmother. Men are fleeting, violent, influences.

“The talk of women taught Pynter Bender one thing: men walked…

…The women spoke of it as if it were an illness — a fever that men were born with, for which there was no accounting and no cure. It could come upon them anytime, but more likely halfway through the harvesting of the canes in April — those months of work and hunger that Old Hope called the Stretch, when the children were thinnest.”

The most powerful episodes fall at the beginning of the second part, when the exploitation of the cane workers is laid bare by the sight of the workers returning from an exhausting day’s work:

The long grey line of men and women dragging their shadows behind them like an extra weight, with the dust of the old cane road frothing around their feet”.

Why you should read it: It is the ultimate post-colonial novel, with the brutality and suffering of past eras laregly unspoken and unavoidably present. It is a major addition to a long tradition of beautiful Caribbean post-colonial writing, where young protagonists struggle against legacies of oppression and the choice between trying to make their way in a society structured against them or immigrate.

The spirit of a young generation changing the way things are is set early on when the boy who was born blind but regained his sight helps his father prepare to lose his:

Pynter loved this time of quietness, when the last of the evening light poured into the room and settled like honey on the bed…But a shadow crept into these moments…Their father was going blind…Pynter saw it approaching the way night crept down the slopes of the Mardi Gras [mountain]. He saw it wrap itself around the old man like a caul and settle him back against the canvas chair….And so Pynter taught the old man not to fear the coming darkness.”

It is also a deeply poetic ode to the power of reading. Just as the boy who was blind but now sees helps his father manage the descent into blindness, so the boy comes back from school and teaches his aunt to read and write in a beautiful passage about the transformative power of literacy:

She’d been writing all her life and did not know it…if writing was nothing more than making marks that meant something, then all the women in Old Hope were writing without knowing it.”

After she writes her name for the first time, she lifts her head “as if she’d just emerged from under water” and holds the paper that “crackled in her hands like firewood” and when she steps out side, Pynter hears “her pretty laughter rising, bright and rapid like light over fast water”.

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