Return to Arcadia

Return to Arcadia

By Andrea Belcham

A review of Return To Arcadia by H. Nigel Thomas

Published on May 1, 2008

Return To Arcadia
H. Nigel Thomas

TSAR Publications
$20.95
paper
300pp
978-1-894770-38-5

H. Nigel Thomas’s new novel opens with a middle-aged man regaining consciousness in Montreal’s Douglas Psychiatric Hospital, only to find that he’s missing several of his toes and all of his memory. In his fractured state, he spews forth to the doctors attending him an angry and erratic verbal collage of philosophical, literary, and cross-cultural references. The immediate effect is to place the reader on as unsteady a ground as the protagonist: will the whole book, we dread, proceed as nonsensically? But as the narrative unfolds and as the patient’s voice becomes more disciplined, the shards of his life reassemble and his madness takes on meaning. “We can’t control what history does,” he rants shortly after awakening,

…We eat its fruits – are its fruits – are the spokes in its wheel; we nurse its wounds, wear its crutches, repeat its lies, enact its horrors

.

So it emerges that the man, Joshua Éclair, is a transplant from the fictional Caribbean island of Isabella, the heir to a large plantation and a wealth of guilt. His current bout of amnesia is but the latest in a chain of breakdowns that have plagued him since his teen years. It becomes his doctors’ goal to help Joshua uncover the past events that contribute to his purgatory. Why does he have no family or friends to visit him in hospital? What is the source of the scars etched across his back? Thomas crafts a mystery in which the crime is the absence of identity and the victim is not wholly innocent. As the title suggests, the answers rest in Arcadia, the estate where Joshua was raised by its owner’s American widow. A woman who fancies herself enlightened on the subject of race compared to her white Isabellan contemporaries, Averill Éclair “adopts” the young Joshua from one of her black labourers. His birth mother is only too relieved to see the boy go, for his light skin is a painful reminder of the circumstances of his conception. Averill’s philanthropic pose is undermined, however, by her practice of denying Joshua contact with his sister, Bita, or with any other manifestations of his black heritage, instead secluding him in privilege, under the lascivious gaze of her pedophiliac preacher cousin. His schoolmates shun Joshua’s “homosexual” behaviour, and he cannot even find respite in the company of the servants who help raise him, since class and their belief that “mixed-colour children” are “worse than the White ones, ’cause them shame o’ what they be” hover constantly in the air. Years later, he reflects on how the lack of a supportive nuclear or extended family informs his present hermit lifestyle:

Doctor, it seems that from the time I was born, everyone saw me as plasticene they could mould and remould… like plasticene each moulding left me a little more soiled… I no longer let soiling hands reach into me.

For Thomas, it is not enough to uncover the social intolerances shaping his character’s misery. Joshua must gain an awareness first of how dirty his own hands are, then of how he can go about cleaning them. The moments of peace he finds in the natural world – whether on Montreal’s Mount Royal or in the “sooty light and crashing waves” of Isabella’s shores – are not sufficient to heal him. Like everyone, he craves the company of like-minded others. Thomas offers a fine story of forgiveness, self-actualization, and belonging. mRb

Andrea Belcham lives in Saint-Lazare, where many of her best neighbours are trees.

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