Reading A High Wind in Jamaica, I wish I could live to read all the worthwhile books. Its utter strangeness gives urgency to knowing everything possible.
Predating Nabokov's Lolita and Golding's Lord of the Flies and postdating Stevenson's Treasure Island and Barrie's Peter and Wendy, Richard Hughes's novel (published by Chatto & Windus in 1929, and available in several editions) nods both ways. I mention Treasure Island for its swashbuckling and linguistic suppleness ("If you was sent by Long John," he said, "I'm as good as pork, and I know it") and Peter and Wendy for its pirates, too, and its inspection of the essence of childhood.
If each book can be seen in dialogue to those before it, A High Wind in Jamaica quite possibly initiated the discussions that made the pedophilic amore of Lolita and the Darwinian mayhem of Lord of the Flies conceivable.
A High Wind in Jamaica is the story of the Bas-Thornton children, and how a hurricane decides a hasty exit from their parents' purview in Jamaica. They set sail for England in a vessel soon overcome by privateers. That they end up on the pirate schooner is accidental. That they make of it an absolute theatrical experience is what children do best. If a pirate story is pleasing, then becoming an actual pirate is much better.
In part, the eccentricity of A High Wind in Jamaica is due to its narration. It sports a first-person narrator who never himself enters the story. Still, he omnisciently allies with pirate Captain Jonsen and sometimes with the "liddlies" (the younger children), but it is largely 10-year-old Emily upon whom his gaze settles. And this unsettles.
In an early scene, naked in the swimming hole with John, her older brother, "Emily, for coolness, sat up to her chin in water, and hundreds of infant fish were tickling with their inquisitive mouths every inch of her body, a sort of expressionless light kissing." Delivered from the perspective of Emily herself, or even by a third omniscient voice, this scene would have had an entirely other effect.
The erotic pervades the novel as an awakening, as that cursed boundary between gleeful ignorance and grown-up civility. If Jonsen sometimes seems to hold undue affection for Emily, she is wanton in her craving for him. It is the desire of the captured for the power the captor holds. It is also an unspeakable lust (for Emily is primal and, primarily, a child) not for true knowing, but for the Neverland of piracy and the holding pattern of not-adulthood it seems to promise.
I love this book because it is so accurate on childhood, or at least my recollection of it: "A child can hide the most appalling secret without the least effort, and is practically secure against detection." Or, "How absurd to disremember such an important point as whether one was God or not!" I love it for its high jinks, its high comedy. There is the cancerous ship's monkey, the ransacking of a Dutch steamer that is hauling animals destined for a circus (the tiger and the lion are reticent fighters and only wish to sleep off the effects of sea voyage). There are Cuban homosexuals. Jonsen calls them "Fairies," but Emily - who knows her mythological lexicon - can plainly see they aren't.
There is pathos too: The death of John, who is killed from falling 40 feet onto his head (unseen); the murder by Emily of the Dutch steamer captain (knife wounds); the loss of a favourite swine (dinner). But to the children, these events pass as a parade might; the colour goes out of them once they vanish from the viewfinder. The children refuse to ask dreadful questions. They daren't even ask the sailors if they are pirates, as that would simply be rude. It is the confluence of innocence and ignorance.
When they are finally rescued, logic is all topsy-turvy. The bower of childhood has been lost, and the drear of fogbound London found. Emily is obliged to learn a court script that will ultimately undo Jonsen. He will hang for the murder of the Dutch captain, a murder she committed. The liddlies, their amoral innocence intact, will endure, one imagines, a dull and eventless British adulthood.
A High Wind in Jamaica features some ugly racism, which may be somewhat forgiven by its publication date, as well as the fact that Hughes reveals the buffoon in all parties. This aspect, possibly affecting its current lost-treasure status, is expurgated from the film version of 1965, which incidentally stars a sullen, pubescent Martin Amis as John.
Several days ago, I opened a packet containing the Nobel Prize-winning author J.M.G. Le Clézio's first novel, The Interrogation. I pulled the book out and opened it willy-nilly: "Adam took a book from the turnstile, at random, opened it towards the middle and read." He reads, of course, a passage from A High Wind in Jamaica. And so I see how one book will lead to the next, and back again.
Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer's second novel, Perfecting, is forthcoming in April. She teaches writing through the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies, and online through the New York Times Knowledge Network.