When my boss gave me this book to read sometime in 2012 I realized that I am very good at impersonating a grownup most of the time, but when a book with this title and cover (see above) shows up, I have a really hard time not laughing hysterically. I mean, come on! A half naked woman on the cover and a title with the word “hoe” in it? You know you guys were all thinking the same thing. Or is it really just me?
My point, and yes I do have one, is that I had no idea what this book was about based on the cover. And as I’m typing these words I’m on page 377 out of 464 and I still have very little idea what this book is about. That’s why I never did a progress report post. I’ve been waiting for this book to get to the point already for weeks now. And it still hasn’t. I have a big problem with this. Probably the point is that there is no point, but when a book is essentially turning out to be a conversation between two people who have known each other all their lives but haven’t had an actual conversation since they were kids, and maybe there was a crime committed by one of them, and there are next to no page breaks, and no chapters, and it’s gotten to feel like I’m reading one long run-on sentence written in dialect that I have a hard time understanding and doing know that I care about what they’re saying anyway. Take that Austin Clarke. Reading that sentence kind of sucked, didn’t it? That’s how I felt for the first two hundred pages of this book. But I kept going because I really wanted to figure out what the point of it all was.
Now I’ve finally finished The Polished Hoe, and I know what happened and I know the point. Sort of. I think to fully understand and appreciate this book for all it’s trying to tell me I would need to learn a lot more about the history of Barbados and its place in the British Empire. I felt like this would have been more effective as a play, since it’s basically close to five hundred pages of a conversation between two people. Mary Gertrude Mathilda Paul Bellfeels calls the police to her home, the Great House of one of the local sugar cane plantations, to confess to a crime. First she talks to a Constable, and then a Crown-Sergeant. The Crown-Sergeant, or Sarge, or Percy, and Mary go back a long way, back to childhood. But after Mary turned thirteen things changed for her, in ways that are gradually revealed to the reader throughout the course of the book. The author actually didn’t reveal what Mary’s crime was until there were less than five pages to go, though by the time I got there what she did hardly came as a surprise, or rather who she did it to hardly came as a surprise. What she did was a bit unexpected.
The present day of The Polished Hoe is 1945 or 1946-ish. The Second World War is a memory, but a recent one. One would have thought that a Caribbean island like Barbados would be pretty removed from the action of that war, but apparently as a then-colony of England, they had to suffer for the cause as well. The war is mentioned more in passing than as an actual plot point; I was just setting the stage. Miss Mary is the mistress of the plantation manager, Mr. Bellfeels, and having borne his only living male heir, she is treated with quite a bit more respect in town than I would have expected of a kept woman. But her son, Wilberforce, is the local doctor. He only makes a brief appearance in the novel, and he’s drunk as a skunk. It’s actually kind of funny. He stumbles into the house, drinks some rum (they’re all always drinking rum. And the rum is never gone. Jack Sparrow would be pleased), and drives off again.
So Miss Mary and Sarge spend all night talking and dancing and talking and eventually having sex, and eventually she gets around to making her statement about her crime. By the time we get to that point it becomes obvious that Miss Mary is mostly a victim of circumstance, a victim of a system that goes back so far that no one on the island thinks there could ever be a different way.
So here’s the deal. I know this book is IMPORTANT. I suspect that The Polished Hoe is very aware that it’s IMPORTANT, but that doesn’t bug me. It should, but it doesn’t. Austin Clarke has a great ear for dialogue and I have no doubt that his dialect is spot-on. I know that the repercussions of colonialism and slavery are still felt daily all over the world. And I know that history is so often told from the perspective of the plantation owners and not from the perspective of the plantation workers, and that’s not right. The thing is that Toni Morrison did it better in Beloved. Or maybe not better so much as…. No. Beloved was better. Weirder. But also better. Do I recommend The Polished Hoe? Yes. Did I love it and will I reread it annually? No. Will Mary Gertrude Mathilda Paul Bellfeels and her tribulations take up room in my memory? Absolutely. Even now I find myself wondering what happened after the end. Does Sarge report the crime? Is Mr. Bellfeels still alive? Why was it ever considered acceptable to own other human beings? I know that’s a loaded question, but I feel that it needs to be asked.
So yes. Read this book and think about it and please can someone do some research about British colonialism in the Caribbean and tell me what you learn? Thanks.