David's Reviews > A High Wind in Jamaica

A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes
Rate this book
Clear rating

by
3073544
's review

it was amazing
bookshelves: nyrb, pants-crapping-awesome

Where has this book been all my life? I've been dreamily gazing out my window all these long hot summers, yearning for just the novel to fulfill my every need—to take me in its sweet-lovin' arms and say without ever quite saying, 'I'm the one. And I've brought the hot oils and penicillin.' It seems a little cruel, or at least irresponsible, for A High Wind in Jamaica to have hidden in the shadows of literary obscurity for so long, forcing me to waste precious hours of my life reading dreck like V.S. Naipaul and Auster's Brooklyn Follies, but why bemoan the past when in fact we're the lucky ones? Some poor saps read all their lives without meeting their literary soulmates and then die with that nagging dissatisfaction pursuing them to the grave. Not me. I've found Salinger, Proust, Bernhard, Krasznahorkai, Richard Hughes, and the rest. (Okay—so I have a lot of soulmates.) This is my orgy of destiny, and the Do Not Disturb sign is on the doorknob.

Just now I said that A High Wind in Jamaica has been hiding 'in the shadows of literary obscurity.' That's not exactly true. It came in at number seventy-one (I believe) on the Modern Library's ridiculous best novels of 20th century list. But still—it doesn't exactly have widespread name recognition like Hemingway, Orwell, or Joyce. It should be just as well-known, of course, but this isn't a fair world. Remember that the Kardashians are celebrities. (That's my current back-to-reality incantation. It quickly counteracts any tendency to expect justice in this world.)

A High Wind in Jamaica is a wickedly unsentimental portrait of childhood and the innocence thereof. It is a needful antidote to the prevailing sense that childhood innocence is the equivalent of moral goodness—because it clearly is not. Young children are largely amoral and, as such, are capable of nearly anything. From the vantage of our adult morality, children can seem callous, cruel, and perhaps even evil. This is a misinterpretation, of course, because they as yet lack the signal posts to act in defiance of a proscribed morality. What they are (to a certain extent) is unmoderated expression. This is a little terrifying to us once we've been fully domesticated by society. And Richard Hughes understands this.

The story is simple enough. In the 1800s, several children are shipped by their parents from their Jamaican plantations back home to London to avoid the environmental and climatic perils of island life. On the way, their ship is hijacked by pirates and they are unintentionally taken prisoner. Thereafter, they become accomplices of the pirates in their continuing adventures. Hughes embellishes the story with an astonishing gift for imagery and turn of phrase and a knack for the blackest kind of humor. I'm well aware that the vague synopsis above is likely to turn away as many readers as it will woo. Just let me assure you that it isn't what you think, and it's probably like nothing you've ever read. It may not be your literary soulmate, but its uniqueness of tone, vision, and temperament deserves to be read.
96 likes · flag

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read A High Wind in Jamaica.
Sign In »

Reading Progress

January 2, 2012 – Started Reading
January 2, 2012 – Shelved
January 5, 2012 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-35 of 35 (35 new)

dateDown arrow    newest »

message 1: by [deleted user] (new)

But I did like this one.


David I'm loving it so far, Erik. A beautiful, weird, funny book.


message 3: by Jason (new)

Jason Do you know they filmed this? I've yet to see it, but Peter O'Toole's casting intrigues me.


message 4: by David (last edited Jan 05, 2012 05:24AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

David Mike wrote: "Do you know they filmed this? I've yet to see it, but Peter O'Toole's casting intrigues me."

No, I didn't know. I'm leery of film adaptations of books I love though.

Which is why I won't see Swann in Love with Jeremy Irons or Cannery Row with Nick Nolte. And I shouldn't have seen The Road. (And you shut up about the The Road, Reynolds! You heartless man.)


message 5: by Manny (new) - added it

Manny This is the movie where Martin Amis makes his one appearance as an actor, right?

It is a needful antidote to the prevailing sense that childhood innocence is the equivalent of moral goodness—because it clearly is not. Young children are largely amoral and, as such, are capable of nearly anything. From the vantage of our adult morality, children can seem callous, cruel, and perhaps even evil.

You might want to check out Jules Reynard's Poil de Carotte, which I just read. A similar message there too.


message 6: by David (last edited Jan 05, 2012 05:45AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

David From your review, Manny:

But his hands have other ideas, and as he finishes his little speech they point the gun at the cat's head and pull the trigger. There is a deafening explosion. When he can see again, half the cat's head is missing, but it's still alive. It's jerking around feebly and looking at him out of its one remaining eye. Poil de Carotte knows he has to put it out of its misery. He clubs it with the rifle butt, kicks it, punches it, but the damn thing just won't die.

Oh, no. I could never read this. Cruelty to or gratuitous violence against animals is a no-go for me. It makes me too sad. The same thing could be done to a human in the story and it wouldn't bother me at all. Interpret that as you wish.

Also, it looks like this book is only available in its original French? I'm one of those dummies who's monolingual. I wish I weren't, but I am. I've tried to learn French a few times, but apparently I'm too lazy.


message 7: by Manny (new) - added it

Manny In fact, most of the cruelty and gratuitous violence is human-on-human, but I respect your decision.

There does seem to be an English translation (Carrot Top), but I have no idea how good it is.


message 8: by David (last edited Jan 05, 2012 07:28AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

David Postscript:

I've just be reading some of the other reviews of this book on Goodreads, and I am continually astounded by how stupid people are. No, people are not stupid because they didn't like the book, but for the idiotic reasons they didn't like the book. Some complain that it's racist. Really? White liberal guilt is a horrible burden for the educated elite, I know, but how is a book set in Jamaica in the Victorian era not supposed to reflect the racism inherent in that society? It seems as though some readers would rather have it whitewashed (no pun intended) so they can feel more cozy. I think this attitude (ignoring the racial injustice of the past) is far more insensitive and, to put it bluntly, racist.

Also, many readers are evidently squeamish about the amorality of the children. One reader went so far as to say that she hated Emily, the ten-year-old girl who is perhaps the most prominent of the characters. This just shows that these readers have entirely missed the point of the novel. They are applying moral standards to amoral children—which I think is the point against which the novel works. This is a debunking of the fanciful notions of childhood by removing children from the cloistered, circumscribed worlds which they usually inhabit in civilized societies and pointing toward their more essential, less societally-modified selves. The woman whom I referenced above is hating a child for being a child. This isn't the same as disliking children in usual sense of the phrase—meaning that we don't enjoy their company; it's hating a thing because its thingness doesn't subscribe to one's idealized (and false) sense of it. She clutches to the image of childhood rather than to the thing itself.

One could argue she responded this way because Richard Hughes failed to accomplish what he intended in the novel A High Wind in Jamaica. This is certainly debatable, but I would argue that it's a failure of the reader to meet the novel on its own terms. One can't always approach a novel with a specific, imperative idea of what it must be. The best novels often surprise us, take us off-guard. That is why I said in the review that my synopsis would turn off as many people as it might lure. When one imagines a pirate story featuring children, a very particular thing comes to mind (or, at least, it came to my mind). And this isn't that. If you need it to be that to be happy with it, you will necessarily be unhappy.


message 9: by Michelle (new)

Michelle David wrote: "Mike wrote: "Do you know they filmed this? I've yet to see it, but Peter O'Toole's casting intrigues me."

No, I didn't know. I'm leery of film adap..."


The filmed version of The Road sucks.

Great review, David!


message 10: by Jason (new)

Jason Michelle wrote: "The filmed version of The Road sucks...."

Not enough Hope & Crosby, right?


message 11: by Michelle (new)

Michelle Exactly.


Esteban del Mal So is it bleak or what? All this 'it's not what you think it is' stuff makes me think of the Goonies.


David No, it's not bleak. And it sure ain't the Goonies.

It's hard to describe. It's light and dark at the same time. It captures what it's like to be a young child—but since it's read from the perspective of an adult, it's sort of disturbing.


Esteban del Mal Since when do you like non-bleak books?

I've added this to my to-read list based upon your stellar review. Looking forward to it.


message 15: by tim (new) - rated it 5 stars

tim Thanks for another amazing review. I too find it much more difficult to read about violence directed toward animals versus the same done to people.


message 16: by Shelly (last edited Jan 08, 2012 02:21PM) (new)

Shelly This review is a great example of the value of Goodreads. That cover is so dumb...Even if I HAD ever heard of this book before (which I wouldn't have), I certainly wouldn't have read it. But now it's on my list.

Also, your comment about people being stupid: I agree. Most people do agree that everyone is stupid. Who all these stupid people are, however, remains a mystery. Anyway, I remember in High School English being frustrated because the teacher or some over-achieving A student asshole type would go on and on and what the author meant...or could have meant, and I never got that. I was such a defensive and angry girl (still am) and I'd be like "HOW DO YOU KNOW HE DIDN'T JUST MAKE HER SHIRT YELLOW BECAUSE HE LIKES YELLOW?!" etc. So (getting to my point!), Goodreaders like yourself who are so good at close reading and non-literal, contextual analysis are important to Goodreaders like me who sometimes just don't get it.


David Thanks, Tim!

Shelly, actually... the cover picture for this book is perfect. It's a picture of the Vivian Girls by the outsider artist Henry Darger. See, this guy Darger was this crazy recluse who lived in (I think) a one-room apartment for the latter period of his life. He rarely spoke to anyone. What he did was, he spent years creating a 15,000-page (!) illustrated novel about these little girls (in frilly dresses or nude with penises) who fought bloody and ferocious slave revolts/religious wars. The official title of the magnum opus is The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. Anyway, this illustration is perfect for this book because the child characters are blithely brutal in the same way that Darger's Vivian Girls were.

I highly recommend this documentary about Henry Darger and his novel:

http://movies.netflix.com/WiMovie/In_...

It's really pretty amazing.

Thank you so much for your comments, Shelly! I felt the exact same way in high school. When we read Lord of the Flies, there was all this analysis of the symbolism. I hate analyzing symbolism. Even if the findings mirror the author's intentions completely, once symbols are decoded and beat into the ground, I think you lose their effect anyway. Symbols shouldn't be all in your face. They should kinda... wash over you... you know?


message 18: by David (last edited Jan 08, 2012 03:04PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

David Here are some more Darger pictures:

[image error]
Nude Vivian Girls (one or two with penises) met by their allies.


Execution time for some of the Vivian Girls!


War! Notice the Vivian Girl being strangled in the lower right corner.


Another random slaughter...


message 19: by Matthieu (new)

Matthieu Oh, Henry...!


message 20: by Sketchbook (last edited Jan 09, 2012 03:46AM) (new)

Sketchbook Martin Amis, yes, was one of the kids in the 1965 pic costarring Anthony Quinn-Js Coburn fr Alexander Mackendrick....A Bwy play version, 1943, called "The Innocent Voyage," x Paul Osborn failed, tho Oscar Homolka as the Capt got fine reviews. Dean Stockwell was in the Amis role. Comic relief: the book had originally been optioned for the stage x Clare Boothe Luce.


message 21: by Scott (new)

Scott Hey I have a question. Is this book explicit? Moreover, sexually explicit or have any nudity in it? Thanks


message 22: by Sketchbook (new)

Sketchbook Clare luved explicit. It's why married Henry.


message 23: by Jenn(ifer) (new)

Jenn(ifer) this has been collecting dust on a shelf for years. i only picked it up for the darger cover, but you're telling me I should actually, oh I don't know.. read it?


David (Jenn)ifer wrote: "this has been collecting dust on a shelf for years. i only picked it up for the darger cover, but you're telling me I should actually, oh I don't know.. read it?"

The Darger cover attracted me too, but the subject matter never sounded very interesting... but it is! So I say: dust that sucker off and give it a try.


message 25: by Jenn(ifer) (new)

Jenn(ifer) I got to see a sizable collection of Darger's work at the American Folk Art Museum in NYC after being introduced to him through that documentary (mentioned above). Great stuff; if you're ever in NYC I highly recommend checking it out.


David (Jenn)ifer wrote: "I got to see a sizable collection of Darger's work at the American Folk Art Museum in NYC after being introduced to him through that documentary (mentioned above). Great stuff; if you're ever in NY..."

I definitely will! He's fascinating.

I think this book kind of captures the mood of his pictures--a strange hybrid of innocence and darkness.


message 27: by Jenn(ifer) (new)

Jenn(ifer) The blurb makes it sound so... um ... boring. But you make it sound interesting & I already own it so it can't hurt to give it a whirl.

If you go to the museum you'll get to see this here (i have a reproduction of it in hanging on my desk) http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-2sXrUXX0HOM...


David The blurb makes it sound so... um ... boring.

I know. It's true.

But it's not! I promise!

At the Chicago Outsider Art museum they have an exact full-size reproduction of his one-room apartment, including all the papers and stuff lying around. It was so cool to see.


message 29: by Jenn(ifer) (new)

Jenn(ifer) Oooo.. I just googled that (http://www.art.org/collection/henry-d...). One more reason to go to Chicago!


message 30: by Jason (new)

Jason What a great review (and postscript), David.


message 31: by s.penkevich (new)

s.penkevich Nice, this sounds good. I saw the H.Darger cover and bought it the other day (I finally saw that documentary on him). Glad I judged a book by it's cover this time.


David s.penkevich wrote: "Nice, this sounds good. I saw the H.Darger cover and bought it the other day (I finally saw that documentary on him). Glad I judged a book by it's cover this time."

It is good. I hope you enjoy. And it captures the Henry Darger spirit so well...


message 33: by s.penkevich (new)

s.penkevich Ha, are they fighting the evils of childhood slavery? I like the idea of amoral children, makes me think of Lord of the Flies but probing the psychology of children instead of caging them in symbols.


message 34: by Missie (new)

Missie I disagree that young children are amoral. Some may be, but others, who have been properly taught morals by their parents and other teachers, are not.


message 35: by Rue (new) - rated it 5 stars

Rue Matthiessen Just finished it, it's one of the best books I've ever read. Want to cry


back to top