An outcast of the islands

Behind the Face of Winter

A review of Behind The Face Of Winter by H. Nigel Thomas

Published on April 1, 2002

Behind The Face Of Winter
H. Nigel Thomas

TSAR Books

H. Nigel Thomas’s second novel covers much of the same physical and psychological territory as his first, Spirits in the Dark (1993). The earlier book is set entirely on fictional Isabella Island, a small Eastern Caribbean country similar to the author’s native St. Vincent; the second begins on Isabella and later shifts to Montreal, to which the author himself emigrated at twenty-one. The novels also share a similar structure: brief opening and closing sections bracket recollections of the past as their respective protagonists search for identity and purpose. The well-established conventions of the West Indian coming-of-age novel are observed, with Winter, more overtly than Spirits, working within the potentially more complex sub-genre which portrays the lives of growing boys whose fathers are absent, lost, or unknown.

A comparison of Behind the Face of Winter with the autobiographical and fictional works of Austin Clarke is unavoidable, for Clarke’s early works, such as the novels of his “Toronto Trilogy,” are landmarks in Caribbean/Canadian literature and deal with situations similar to those that Thomas portrays. While Thomas, a professor of literature at Laval University and a writer of considerable talent, is clearly indebted to Clarke, his latest work lacks the engaging energy, sustained narrative power and humour in the face of adversity that has been Clarke’s hallmark. Part of the problem is the seeming inability of Pedro Moore, Thomas’s first-person narrator, to fully confront the demons which haunt him.

The dominant tone of the novel is established on the first page of the Prologue as Pedro, after 11 years in Canada, awakens on his 26th birthday: “Snow. Feathery white dots linking heaven and earth. Weaving about earth a burial shroud, pristine white, which will turn into grey slush in less than a day. Like life.” Pedro’s disillusion with life in Canada and his search for a spiritual home lead him to a lyrical and well-wrought recollection of his early life under the care of his self-sacrificing “Grama” on Isabella Island.

Pedro is a divided and anguished personality. While condemning white racism and exploitation, he cannot accept many aspects of his island’s black culture or its transplanted version in Montreal. Although a product of the impoverished peasantry, Pedro is never one of the boys: unathletic and, in his grandmother’s frank description, “ugly,” he is rendered an outsider by his intelligence, insistent use of correct English rather than dialect, delicate sensibilities, bookish introspection, and evident lack of interest in women.

What sets Thomas’s novels apart from most other Caribbean-based fiction, then, is not that the central character is intellectually brilliant (nor that he lives in Montreal, shops at Miracle Mart and joylessly collects McGill academic degrees without much apparent effort), but that he struggles with what Jerome Quashie of Spirits calls his “hidden homosexuality.” Although Pedro feels that his years at McGill have “clad (him) in shit, which only (his) birthplace could wash off,” he is unable to retain “the references which gave meaning to (his) life.” On his 26th birthday he states, “Today I must…try perhaps to make sense of this life of mine, to unwrap some things, look behind.” Unfortunately what follows is a rambling narrative of Pedro’s life in Montreal, maddeningly loaded with digressions, irrelevant detail, and frequently pedantic commentary, all seemingly designed, consciously or unconsciously, to boost the ego of the protagonist while deflecting attention from his central problem.

The question for both the reader and the writer is: why the retreat from any clear resolution? Perhaps evasion is the story. mRb

Doug Rollins taught English literature and jazz history at Dawson College, now supervises student teachers at McGill University.



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