There’s a blurb on the back of my copy from Marilyn French, a more or less contemporary of Margaret Atwood’s, who says of this book “Romance and adventure by a female Graham Greene at his peak” and at first I thought it was dismissive in a strange way, but then I started reading, and thought — well, I’ll be damned.
So it does share a lot of similarities with Graham Greene in a few key ways, or more with a certain set of Graham Greene’s book — it’s about a white Westerner (a middle class 40 year old woman from Canada) showing up in a former colonial space and affecting it by here mere presence. But it also goes from here, and like Greene, the more the lead character gets involved in the local scene, the more it’s clear she shouldn’t. But! And this is where this book succeeds, she’s on her own kind of journey and there’s a lot of accidental crossover between her journey and the island’s political situation.
So the plot here is that Rennie is at a kind of crisis moment in her life. She’s recently been treated for breast cancer and her partner has left her, she’s fallen somewhat or some kind of in love with her oncologist, and she’s a travel writer, so she travels to write and to escape the confines of her life. And like I said, there’s a lot of familiarity in this plot. For one, it’s a lot like the Penelope Mortimer novel I read two years ago, My Friend Says It’s Bulletproof, about a woman travelling through the US to escape or process her cancer diagnosis, finding distraction and frustration with men on her travels. And it’s also a lot like many novels in the general decade or more surrounding this novel — Alison Lurie’s Foreign Affairs or even Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby, which came out the same year. Travel and revitalization are quite common compatriots in literature.
But. Of course it’s all a lie. Foreign travel is fraught, especially on the backs of a former British colony at the precipice of political crisis (they’re probably about to elect a right-wing dictator to be their president and they have 60% unemployment). So this book finds itself in the crossroads of middle-class problems of Western white women and the vacuum created in colonial spaces.
This is an interesting book and should probably remain in its context, but it’s clearly dealing with several conflicting issues headlong. It’s also the novel she wrote right before The Handmaid’s Tale and feels very late 1970s (like a lot of her early novels), but it’s also an interesting contrast. It’s also pretty low-rated on Goodreads, which is curious to me because while I certainly see some issues with it, it’s also perfectly good writing and certainly no more problematic than LOTS of things.
(Cover Photo: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bodily_Harm_(novel))