Posts Tagged ‘C L R James’

Popping up at the end of the day with this third review for the 1936 club. I bought Minty Alley after seeing Bernardine Evaristo talking about the Black Britain Wiring back project on TV – not realising at the time that it would fit into the upcoming club.

C L R James was born in Trinidad in 1901 – later spending time living in the United States and the United Kingdom. Minty Alley was his only novel – the first novel by a Caribbean writer to be published in England. He was also known as a writer of several non-fiction books and worked for a time as a sports correspondent at the then Manchester Guardian.

Set in Port of Spain the Trinidadian capital of the 1920s, Haynes is a young middle class man whose mother has recently died. As the novel opens Haynes is considering his options, he can’t really afford to carry on living in his mother’s house – and is considering letting out half the rooms. Haynes has clearly lived a quiet, careful life with his mother – and with her gone is already beginning to rely on the good counsel of his servant Ella who worked for his mother for years. It is at her suggestion that Haynes decides to give up the whole house – rather than risk losing it entirely and move himself to cheap lodgings.

“Minty Alley was not two hundred yards away and the house was one on which his gaze must often have rested. But it was only now when he approached it as a prospective lodging-house that he took particular notice of it. No 2 stood at a corner, far in from the street. He walked down the yard, mounted a few steps, knocked and waited. The yard was quite clean; so was the front of the house, though badly in need of a coat of paint. Through the open jalousies he could see a neat little drawing room, centre-table, bentwood chairs, antimacassars, what-nots and china ornaments. Among the pictures was one of Christ with a bleeding heart.”

His new home is 2 Minty Alley – where Ella will still come each day to cook for him. Minty Alley is a lively, working class barrack yard – a place filled with more life than Haynes has ever seen. His one room looks out over the yard, opposite the kitchen, and here it seems everyone passes through, coming and going, arguing daily with one another and conducting their riotous love affairs in almost full view of everyone else.

The house is owned by Mrs Rouse and her feckless partner Benoit. Mrs Rouses’s young niece Maisie lives in the house too – a lively, irrepressible girl who Haynes is almost immediately dazzled by. Mrs Rouse’s most faithful servant is Philomen and other kitchen hands seem to come and go. In the room next to Haynes is Miss Atwell – and when Haynes moves in another a woman known only as the nurse and her young son are also in residence. All we know about the nurse is her profession and how pale skinned she is – colourism as well as class feature strongly in the stories of these wonderfully drawn characters.

Hynes is in the perfect position to see all – he watches and listens to all that happens with some fascination and awe – this is the kind of life he has never experienced before. The nurse and Maise are both the cause of furious arguments and upset – Benoit too is shown to have treated his common law wife of many years with some disdain. In the yard insults and accusations are thrown around, tears shed, hurt feelings soothed and the latest gossip endlessly gone over. The atmosphere of the town beyond the yard is portrayed beautifully in the tales that the residents of Minty Alley bring back with them – we can feel the distant hum of a lively, bustling town. There’s always a little bit of drama brewing, everyone waiting to see what will happen next – what the subject of the day’s gossip will say or do when they come back.

“That night No. 2 was a curious mixture of brooding quiet enlivened by flashes of excitement. All the talking and discussion and reconstruction came afterwards. What everyone was really waiting for was the appearance of Benoit. As far as they knew he had no inkling at all of all that had happened, having gone away as usual after lunch.”

In coming to live in Minty Alley Haynes could certainly have been accused of slumming it. Haynes is seen as a gentleman by the other residents of number 2 – and as such his opinion is constantly sought – he finds himself attempting to calm inflamed situations – as he gets drawn into the lives around him more and more. Haynes is more of an observer than a participant in the dramas around him.  Yet, he can’t help but feel sympathy toward some and frustration at the actions of others. Minty Alley opens Haynes’s eyes to the world around him, living here completes his education. There is a sense that Haynes will carry the experiences of Minty Alley with him for the rest of his life, perhaps reflecting on them with a wry smile in old age.

Minty Alley is light-hearted and often funny, it’s also a brilliant portrait of a community. While Hayne’s weekly salary is small enough to be scorned by Maisie as not being nearly enough – it is in fact more than Philomen earns in a month. I’m so pleased that this novel is back in print – such a delight. For those of you who love a boarding house novel this is a worthy addition to the list.

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