Huracan by Diana McCaulay

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Huracan by Diana McCaulay

Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Huracan is the Taino word for storm (or possibly for the god of storms) and is clearly where we get hurricane from. Three hurricanes, a hundred years between each of them, form the backdrops for life-shifting decisions by three quite distinct members of the McCaulay bloodline. But this isn't a family saga, it's more a portrait of how modern Jamaica came to be and what, thus far, it has become.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 287 Date: May 2012
Publisher: Peepal Tree Press
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781845231965

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1986 – 30-year-old Leigh McCaulay (White gal!) is returning to Jamaica, the land of her birth. Her mother is dead and there is an estate to be settled. Her estranged father is somewhere on the island. Her brother is in England. This isn't the closest of grieving families. Leigh doesn't even know how her mother died. Indeed, she's a bit surprised to find out she'd gone back to Jamaica. The residual family had left the island not long after the father's desertion.

She's thrilled to be back, but her welcome isn't all that she'd have wished. Her romantic notions immediately quashed by that insult, that echoes the confusions of her childhood.

Pay him no mind. Him don't know better her driver comforts her. But actually, Danny, the driver doesn't really know much better either. Even when he gets over the shock that the returning Jamaican lady coming to work at the Kingston homeless shelter is white of skin, but still Jamaican at heart, he struggles to get past that deference of skin colour. It is a theme throughout the book that no matter how 'native' Leigh, feels herself, she stands out, she harks back, just by the colour of her skin.

Or maybe not just by that.

Circumstances will eventually bring them closer together, but even then, on one reading, only because of Leigh's attitude – an attitude that is born of her white-world, democracy-trusting, poverty-free upbringing and experience. She trusts that the streets are safe to walk, more or less, especially in broad daylight. She trusts that authority can be trusted.

Whatever she thinks, Jamaica isn't the world she thought, or hoped, it would be.

1786 – naïve 16-year-old Zachary Macaulay has endured the sea voyage from Port Glasgow to Montego Bay. Banished by his family, for his part in the shame brought upon them, he is sent to be a book-keeper on the Bonnie Valley plantation. He has no idea of the world into which he is about to enter, but he does so with that specific conviction of the Middle Classes that we know enough to be able to work out the rest, that we are respectable and will therefore be respected and that, at that time, there are slaves and this is the natural order of the world.

By 1786 however, it was an order whose naturalness was already being questioned. Zachary's time at the plantation is designed to inure him to the system, but try as he might, his personal empathy and intelligence niggle away at the conscience that from the outset destine him to eventually side with the abolitionists.

1885 – Pastor John Macaulay arrives to discover that his notions of his rural parish church and its flock in the remote town of Fortress were just that: romantic notions. The reality is much harsher. The only other white family in the neighbourhood is that of the local Magistrate, a bigoted individual who wouldn't consider worshipping at a church built for the natives, but will drive for hours to be among his own kind instead. Clearly missing the fundamental points of his own religion…

…but then that is one of the points that lies sharply beneath the text of Diana McCaulay's fictionalised re-telling of the lives of people who may or may not be her relatives.

Every decision that Leigh, Zachary and John make is informed by the times in which they live, but is also informed by times in which they wish they were living, by their ideals of how the world should be. Of course, those ideals themselves shift over the course of two hundred years' worth of philosophical debate, but the fundamentals still prick…

This isn't a novel about religious belief, that is merely a framework for one of the lives under consideration The fundamental is deeper than that. It is about a right to be an individual, a right to have a culture, and also a right to reject it and choose another one.

It is also about that small measure of hypocrisy that lives within all of us. We may think we are true to our principles but are we? Pastor John strives to engage with the local community, but when his brother decides to marry into it, that is a step too far.

Leigh, struggling with both the deference and the disdain that is afforded her on the basis of her colour or her assumed wealth, nevertheless finds herself retreating into their protection on occasion.

The three protagonists are ultimately sympathetic though, possibly because of their frailties and failings and imperfections. Each hits a point of choice and makes it unswervingly.

Of course the tales are interwoven, that is still the technique du jour, and still one that rarely serves a valid end. In the case of Huracan, at least it doesn’t dis-serve the novel. I'm not sure how much it adds. There is some sense in having Leigh book-end the earlier episodes but having Zachary and John bobbing in and out confused things for me, I did have to keep pausing to check which time line we were in. Things hadn't moved very far in that hundred years… perhaps that's the point, perhaps that would have been less obvious if their segments had been presented sequentially.

Diana McCaulay is a Jamaican writer, born and bred. Her researches were driven by family stories of how they came to be on the island and theories that they might be connected to the real abolitionist Zachary Macaulay. It's a link that she has failed to establish. The lives therefore were born out of her imagination, but the imagination was watered with fact.

As a result Huracan isn’t the story of Zachary Macaulay (whose bust genuinely does reside in Westminster Abbey). Instead, it's an attempt at a living portrait of modern Jamaica. It's really Leigh's story, of how - over centuries - she came to be, what the influences are that have shaped her thinking, and why because of them, and because the world is the way it is, her home island remains one of the most beautiful, most laid-back, most violent and dangerous places. Injustice and equality are still rife.

Jamaica is one of those places, but by no means is it the only one, where it is hard to observe from a distance without thinking: given what we did to you, why can't you now see what you are doing to others, you of all people, should 'get' this.?! It's not even as if it's retribution, because the brute power now being wielded with just as little justification and justice, isn't being wielded against the former perpetrators for the most part but (as always) against the largely innocent or ignorant.

Beyond that though, there is hope. Still there are people who believe the problems can be resolved, and in the meantime, they will, quite simply be endured. Leigh is frustrated by the concept of Jamaica time whenever a bus or a driver is late, but maybe that ability to live on Jamaica time is what allows solutions to, however slowly, evolve.

The author is restrained in her use of Scots idiom for her historical protagonists: wisely, since both were educated men and could be presumed to have spoken a fair rendition of the King's/Queen's English. Her islanders are insistent in their local idiom, which is deployed with a panache that serves to heighten enjoyment rather than undermine understanding. Skilfully done.

This book came to Bookbag courtesy of Ilkley Literature Festival where Diana McCauley will be appearing on 7 October 2012.

For a more light-hearted look at Jamaican history you could try The Long Song by Andrea Levy, or for something a bit more gritty check out Pao by Kerry Young

Buy Huracan by Diana McCaulay at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Huracan by Diana McCaulay at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Huracan by Diana McCaulay at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Huracan by Diana McCaulay at Amazon.com.


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