Richard Hughes’ A High Wind in Jamaica, ranked 71st on the Modern Library’s list of the top 100 English-language novels of the 20th century, is an anti-adventure novel that deglamorizes the traditional pirate story and instead uses pirates as a vehicle for a serious novel about innocence and its loss.
The novel tells the story of the Bas-Thornton children, five preteens who live on a plantation with their parents in Jamaica, but who are sent back to England after a terrible hurricane convinces their parents that life on the island is unsafe. Traveling with two children from a neighboring plantation, they have barely embarked when their ship is set upon by pirates, led by the Danish sailor Captain Jonsen, who takes the children as well as all of the cargo. The cowardly captain of their original ship believes them killed and reports as such to their parents, who don’t learn the truth until the end of the book. Captain Jonsen tries to leave the children with a matriarch in a pirates’ haven on the island, but is rebuffed after an accident befalls one of the five, leading to several months at sea during which tensions rise between crew and captives and their “adventures” prove more harrowing than thrilling.
Unlike typical novels set on the high seas, A High Wind in Jamaica veers straight for the more serious themes, including rape and murder, that would be required in any realistic depiction of piracy. Forcing children who do not as yet understand mortality, and all of whom but one remain unaware of sexuality, into a situation where they will be confronted by the harsh realities of adult life allows Hughes to explore innocence and the cognitive dissonance children utilize to deal with events they can’t fully understand.
Hughes’ skill in dealing with this extends to his ability to bounce between the children when providing perspectives within the book, and aside from the one real murder of the novel, often describing occurrences in obscuring language to mirror the fog a seven-year-old might perceive when older children are discussing sex. The way Hughes jumps from child to child also seemed to me to mirror the rocking of a boat sailing somewhat aimlessly on the open seas, as Captain Jonsen wishes to rid himself of his human cargo (without harming them) but fears that he will be charged with kidnapping or worse if he tries to hand them over to another ship.
The book reads quickly as Hughes’ prose is straightforward, but lacked much narrative greed – there seemed little chance that Hughes would simply wipe out all of the children to end the book, so I read it assuming full well that there would be a reunion before the novel’s conclusion. Those final few short sections are critical, particularly to the resolution of Emily’s story, as she ends up the most central of the child characters, but I found my involvement within the plot to be rather limited.
I haven’t even acquired Haruki Murakami’s new book, the mammoth 1Q84, and probably won’t until it ends up in paperback next year. (When I’m reading a book, I tend to carry it all over the place, including on planes, and a three-pound book just isn’t my cup of tea.) I am still working my way through his back catalog, and read the somewhat inconsequential After Dark earlier this month. Telling the story of a few lost souls on one peculiar night in Tokyo, Murakami slips in a little magical realism, a few touches of his usual violence (off screen, for a change), and a lot of the vaguely philosophical dialogue that populates most of his novels.
The two main characters, Mari and Takahashi, meet by chance, and then are thrown together again by necessity, launching them on an all-night conversation that links their story to the parallel tale of Mari’s sister, who has been asleep – but not comatose – for what seems to be months, the result of a depression that is never explained but that has taken a toll on Mari as well. The parallel narrative trick worked more effectively for Murakami in Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, another book of his I’d rate below his average (which is still above most contemporary writers’ averages). In After Dark, all edges are blurred, perhaps a nod to the darkness and the way our vision is distorted by artificial light, but that same blurriness keeps his characters at arm’s length, and the novel is so brief that we never learn enough about any of the central characters to understand what’s driving them to or away from anything.
Next up: I just finished W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage – I can think of at least one thing wrong with that title – and have moved on to James Crumley’s hard-boiled detective novel The Last Good Kiss.