Roy Heath: a man goes home

David Katz recalls the career of the late Guyanese writer


Roy AK Heath, who has died aged 81, was a writer whose work vividly explored the complex situation of contemporary Guyana. Heath’s central characters typically displayed the emotional turmoil that results from a divided psyche, while another primary concern was the pervasive tensions between differing social classes and ethnic groups in an emerging nation.

Born into a middle-class family but raised in a working-class section of Georgetown, Heath attended the prestigious Central High School, but often skipped classes to play billiards at the shipping yard, mingling  with dock workers, pimps and prostitutes, as detailed in his evocative memoir  Shadows round the Moon. Becoming politically active, he gravitated towards Marxism and the People’s Progressive Party.

After working as a treasury clerk, in 1951 Heath went to study languages  at London University, and became a teacher when he graduated, the year after he married. He also studied law, but although he was called to the bar in 1964 (and later, to the bar in Guyana), he never practised, but taught French and German at Christ’s College from 1968, by which time he was already writing the novels that were inspired by his frequent visits home.

In 1972, Heath’s short story Miss Mabel’s Burial was published in the Guyanese journal Kaie; two years later, The Wind and the Sun appeared in the Jamaican journal Savacou.

Heath’s first published novel, A Man Comes Home (1974), adapted the myth of the “Fair Maid,” in which an impoverished young man makes a dubious Faustian pact with a water spirit, to make wider points about social inequalities and problematic personal relationships. His 1978 book The Murderer, which won the Guardian Fiction prize, was a haunting account of the paranoid protagonist’s descent into madness and the inevitable outcome that gives the book its title; this, and the compelling Armstrong Family trilogy that followed (From the Heat of the Day (1979), One Generation (1980) and Genetha (1981)), helped establish his reputation, drawing comparisons to Joseph Conrad, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.

His novels of the 1980s continued in much the same vein: Kwaku, or the Man Who Could Not Keep His Mouth Shut (1982) was the tale of a small-time conman whose personal insecurity leads to his downfall, while Orealla (1984) contrasted the pitfalls of the protagonist’s urban existence with a utopian alternative introduced by an Amerindian from the hinterland.

The Shadow Bride (1988), which won the Guyana Prize for Literature and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, explored the complex relationship between a Guyanese doctor of Indian descent and his Indian-born mother, the tensions of their differing worldviews played out on a sugarcane plantation during the turbulent 1930s. His final novel, The Ministry of Hope (1997), was a belated sequel to Kwaku.

Heath had been suffering from Parkinson’s disease for a number of years.