Shakespeare and co.

Lisa Allen-Agostini on Prospero’s Daughter and Grace, by Elizabeth Nunez

Elizabeth Nunez

Prospero’s Daughter, by Elizabeth Nunez (Ballantine Books, ISBN 0-345-45535-5, 316 pp)

Grace, by Elizabeth Nunez (Ballantine Books, ISBN 0-345-45534-7, 294 pp)

 

The sensible way to approach Elizabeth Nunez’s most recent novels, Prospero’s Daughter and Grace, is to read them with one hand on your Shakespeare. The first is a retelling of the comedy The Tempest as a pre-World War Two love affair between a Miranda-type and a Caliban-type, set in Trinidad. The second is a contemporary love story set in New York, but rich with allusions to the Bard’s canon as well as to modern classics such as Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

Prospero’s Daughter brings to life the postmodernist view of the Prospero-Caliban relationship as a synonym for Europeans and Africans in the Caribbean. Some critics argue that Sycorax’s island was stolen from her by the invading Prospero, as the Caribbean was stolen from the Amerindians by the Europeans. Her disenfranchised children, symbolised by Caliban, are the Africans who “inherited” European oppression from the Caribs and Arawaks.

In Nunez’s novel, Prospero is the Englishman Peter Gardener, a former doctor of medicine, who for sinister and desperate reasons has become a refugee on Chacachacare, a tiny island just off Trinidad’s north-west coast, which was a leper colony during the period in which the book is set. (Lawrence Scott set his recent novel Night Calypso there as well.) His daughter, Virginia, is the Miranda character, and the Caliban is Carlos, the mulatto son of the house’s late owner, a white woman from Algeria — Shakespeare’s “blue-eyed hag”. Ariel, the male sprite forcibly indentured to Prospero in Shakespeare’s conception, becomes a waif-like adolescent cook and housemaid named Ariana.

Prospero’s Daughter starts in a police station where an expat Englishman named Mumsford is made to start an investigation into the alleged rape of a white English girl by a black native boy. The girl is Virginia/Miranda and the boy is Carlos/Caliban. The book is told as a series of narratives, beginning with Mumsford’s, progressing to Carlos’s, and ending with Virginia’s. Each has his or her own take on the situation at hand and the historical circumstances that have led to Gardener’s life in Chacachacare and hence the alleged rape.

Mumsford has no parallel in The Tempest, and his is the only narrative in the novel told in the third person, suggesting his role as an outsider to the story and the text alike. His voice is, however, the most stilted in the novel; it feels like a late addition to a complete work. The other two sections, however, are gracefully written and lyrical:

There was no moon. Once we got past the end of the lawn to the path that led to the sea, the bushes closed in on us and we could barely see. I stretched out my hand to Virginia. She took it, and when her fingers closed over mine, my anger, my jealousy, my fear ebbed away like the tide.

Hand in hand, not speaking, as much because we were afraid to speak, to make the slightest noise as it was because we were suddenly shy, I led her off the path, through a narrow track cluttered with dead branches, stones, and curling vines. The night air was thick with the fragrance of the earth baked in the daylong sun. Dried leaves crumbled beneath our feet and released a vegetable perfume that mixed with the odour of animal droppings, a smell not unpleasant. Organic. Pure. Nature untouched, unchanged by human hands.

Nunez, who is the author of a string of noted novels, including Bruised Hibiscus and Discretion, is a professor of English at a US college. She is obviously a bibliophile and a fan of The Tempest; the play figures in her second-most-recent novel, Grace, as well. But while Nunez uses the characters, plot, and ideology of The Tempest as the springboard for Prospero’s Daughter, how smoothly she does it is debatable.

At times she seems to be attempting to recreate the myth wholesale: Shakespeare’s Prospero was a magician, and so is Nunez’s; Ariel was in thrall to Sycorax as Ariana is beholden to Carlos’s mother; Nunez’s characters, like Shakespeare’s, live an isolated life on the island; Carlos is made into a hewer of wood and drawer of water like Caliban; and Virginia’s name is taken from the line in the play where Prospero entreats her swain not to break her “virgin-knot” before they are wed.

All that would be fine, except that it’s sometimes so disingenuously accomplished. Everybody in Prospero’s Daughter quotes The Tempest; but even when they know they’re quoting it and calling themselves the names from the play, there seems to be a queer sense of separation between them and the text. For example, Carlos is locked up for threatening to “people the island with Calibans” — a direct reference to the source text, but Gardener doesn’t seem to notice that it’s said as such, and is as furious as if the boy had voiced the threat as an original thought.

But there is much to recommend this novel, which is a stimulating addition to the ongoing Caribbean conversation about colonialism, governance, race, and identity. Carlos is a brilliant poet — as indeed Caliban’s speeches are the most lyrical and profound in The Tempest — but though he learns Standard English from Gardener, he learned to write poetry from his own father. Nunez makes none-too-subtle points about the intelligence and potential of the Caribbean’s people, the region’s corrupt roots in white supremacy, and the benefits of intermarriage of cultures.

Despite rough spots, Nunez sometimes shows fine craft in her execution of the textual references, demonstrating a deep familiarity with the play and its nuances. For example, what in Shakespeare was a mere hint of an intimate relationship between Prospero and Ariel (in the exchange, “Do you love me, master? No?” “Dearly, my delicate Ariel,” in act four) becomes the basis of a whole strange and sickening relationship between Nunez’s Prospero and his adolescent maid. Many of Gardener’s speeches are based on Prospero’s, as Carlos’s are based on Caliban’s. “He would teach me new words, he said, so I would know my own meaning,” says Carlos of his usurping houseguest, in a clear echo of Prospero’s most famous speech about language: “When thou didst not, savage, know thine own meaning, but wouldst gabble like a thing most brutish, I endow’d thy purposes with words that made them known”.

In Grace, the text is not so openly used as source material, though The Tempest itself is alluded to, along with Hamlet and Morrison’s Beloved. Instead, the book reads as semi-autobiography, as the main character is a Trinidad-born professor of English at a New York college, like Nunez herself. (In an interview at the back of the paperback edition, however, she denies it is autobiographical.) Justin Peters teaches the works of “dead white men” to inner-city students who miss their significance; they’re struggling with Hamlet when his wife starts having an identity crisis that threatens their marriage and family.

Grace is a fair story and well-written, but perhaps what kept me turning the pages were the intertextual references, not so much the characters, whom I found insincere, or the crisis in the marriage, which seemed contrived.

He wakes up one morning tracing letters in his head: the serpentine curl of the S in Sally, the rigid lines of the N in no, shimmering in capital, straight up, straight down, then up again. Capital S, capital N. Words appear before him as in a mirage and then become concrete, the letters sharp and defined. Sally does Not love me. Sight reaches sound and sound his tongue. He says the words aloud: Sally does Not love me.

That is how the book begins, with a man obsessively tracing the contours of a failing marriage. Yet, though the book painstakingly explores not just Justin and Sally’s current relationship, but their past and parallel relationships — his with his mother, her with hers; his friendships with a male lecturer and a student at the college, hers with her best girlfriend — there never seems to be any compelling reason for the withering of their love. While that may be life, it’s arguable that art demands a bit more effort.

The way Justin salvages the relationship, too, is equally suspect, and one is left with the feeling that the story of the love and its salvation were less important to Nunez than writing the story of this man’s career and his lifelong interaction with literature.

“Good literature gives us the big T truth. I can’t say this for all writers, but the ones I admire have the courage to tell the big T truth about our common humanity,” Justin Peters tells a friend. And true to his word he questions his own life while analyzing Hamlet. “If Hamlet is a coward, then is he, Justin, a coward?” The core argument about literature in Grace is how relevant the dead white canon is to the modern world. Nunez argues strenuously that it is relevant, and in her novels proves that it’s also great fodder for fiction.

 

Reproduced with permission from the Caribbean Review of Books (CRB), August 2006. Copyright Media & Editorial Projects Ltd (MEP) and the CRB.