Saturday, July 23, 2016
from the Caribbean: Shadows Move Among Them, by Edgar Mittleholzer
Peepal Tree Press, 2010
originally published 1951
"Berkelhoost teems with passionate, residual spirits."
Having recently discovered Mittelholzer's work (in My Bones and My Flute), I couldn't wait to revisit him again. Luckily, Peepal Tree Press has published a few of his books, including this one. The blurb for Shadows Move Among Them says that while reading this book it is "impossible" not to make comparisons to "the fate of the People's Temple commune at Jonestown in Guyana in 1978." I can sort of see it -- you have in this novel the establishment of a "utopian" community of Berkelhoost where people are free to express themselves in many different ways, but it's a place where the emphasis on "discipline" comes before everything else. It's a good book with a story that takes time to develop but once you're in, you're hooked.
Set on the banks of the Berbice River back when this country was still known as British Guiana, the leader of this community, Reverend Harmston, has developed a philosophy centering on taking life with "a pinch of salt," without having to "nail ourselves down to any set philosophy or flat conventions." Newcomer Gregory Hawke, the nephew of Mrs. Harmston, has come to Berkelhoost seeking a rest -- he's burned out by the war, he may or may not have killed his wife, and he's looking to heal his nerves and seek peace in nature. When he gets there, Harmston's precocious daughter Olivia realizes that the real Gregory hasn't yet appeared, that it's "only his shadow" that is with them. As Gregory becomes more familiar with the family and the way of life at Berkelhoost, he finds himself having to take stock of the meaning of "civilization" (the world he's just left) and "barbarism" as he's confronted with an entirely new set of values here, constructed in such a way as to be a sort of antidote to the problems of the outside world. There's much more of course -- sex, nature, religion, and of course, Guyanese history all have major roles in this novel.
There's a lot of subtle humor in this novel, as well as a growing awareness that even in this utopian oasis, all may not be as bright as it seems. Berkelhoost is a not only a place of phantoms and shadows, but it is also a place where contradictions abound. I found it to be an incredibly thought-provoking novel once I started noticing said contradictions and to me this was the big payoff here.
Shadows Move Among Them may not be everyone's cup of tea, but so far, I haven't been disappointed with either of the Mittelholzer novels I've read and there are more winging their way to my house as we speak. I appreciate Peepal Tree Press taking the time to publish his work; there are still some books that haven't yet been brought back into print, but I'm hoping the Peepal folks will consider doing so. His books are definitely worth reading.