Penguin Books recently republished George Lamming’s autobiographical first novel In the Castle of My Skin* as part of a 2017 redesign of their Modern Classics series. I was lucky enough to receive a copy recently and, since I had never heard of the book before, my curiosity was piqued.
Set in 1930s Barbados, it’s a semi-autobiographical novel based on the author’s childhood growing up in the then-British colony, informally referred to as ‘Little England.’ Young G. lives in a quiet village watched over by their English landlord, Mr Carrington. Life goes on as it always does until the day of G.’s ninth birthday, when torrential rain causes heavy flooding. This is the first in a series of events that leave the village irrevocably altered by the novel’s end.
At 340 pages long and printed in fairly small type, this is not a quick read. Neither is it a particularly easy one, at least to start with. In the Castle of My Skin opens with a few chapters told from G.’s perspective, before moving entirely into the third person for several chapters. The focus shifts multiple times, as does the style: one chapter describes the day of a school assembly (which G. presumably attends, though is never mentioned); another is a dialogue-heavy discussion between the village’s two oldest residents, Ma and Pa. We don’t see G. again until Chapter 6.
This assortment of styles and viewpoints frustrated me at first, as did Lamming’s slow, thoughtful writing style. I’ve grown used to reading more contemporary reads, and it took me a while to appreciate what Lamming set out to achieve with this novel. This is not a fast-paced, plot-heavy narrative centred around one young character, but the collective experience of an entire village coming to terms with the changes that are slowly overtaking them. Lamming puts it far better than I can in his introduction to the novel:
The book is crowded with names and people [but] we are rarely concerned with the prolonged exploration of an individual consciousness. It is the collective human substance of the Village which commands our attention. The Village, you might say, is the central character.
(Had I read the book’s introduction before starting the book, I would understood this from the outset. However, I usually avoid introductions when reading classics for the first time, for fear of spoiling the plot.)
Over the course of the book’s fourteen chapters, the villagers discuss at length their thoughts and views of life as they know it. They contemplate their actions and the actions of others, often repeating themselves over and over. As they do so, Lamming reveals his characters’ views and beliefs in a way that quietly shocks the reader, views that the characters themselves would consider normal, even mundane.
Take, for instance, the passage in which a group of schoolboys discuss what they have know about a strange old idea called “slavery”. They know little about it, other than the fact that, according to their teacher, “it had nothing to do with people in Barbados. No one there was ever a slave, the teacher said. It was in another part of the world where those things happened. Not in Little England.” Compounding their innocence, Lamming adds that:
“Moreover, they weren’t told anything about that. They had read about the Battle of Hastings and William the Conqueror. That happened so many hundred years ago. And slavery was thousands of years before that. It was too far back for anyone to worry about teaching it as history. That’s really why it wasn’t taught. It was too far back. History had to begin somewhere, but not so far back.”
In just a few pages, Lamming brilliantly condenses the insidious authority of the British Empire over the inhabitants of its colonies. These boys reason away slavery, this thing they don’t need to know about, because they have been taught that it is too far removed from them, both historically and geographically. The reader can see the façade of peace that has been built through these lies: were the boys to discover that their country came into existence through slavery, that their not-too-distant ancestors were themselves slaves, they would surely, rightly, rebel from the ‘influence’ of Mother England.
I could go on and on about this book – I have underlined passage after passage – but that would risk turning this review into an essay. Suffice it to say, it is a work of quiet genius. This book will not entertain you, but that is not its purpose. If you give it your time and your focus, In the Castle of My Skin will absorb you until the very last page.