fri 14/06/2024

CLR James: Minty Alley review - love and betrayal in the barrack-yard | reviews, news & interviews

CLR James: Minty Alley review - love and betrayal in the barrack-yard

CLR James: Minty Alley review - love and betrayal in the barrack-yard

Out of print for decades, James's landmark novel deals in drama and low intrigue

Trinidadian socialist historian Cyril Lionel Robert James (1901-1989)

CLR James came to London from Trinidad in 1932, clutching the manuscript of his first and only novel. He soon found work, writing about cricket for the Manchester Guardian, as well as a political faith, revolutionary Trotskyism, which would inspire him to set aside his literary ambitions for political activism.

James would instead make his name as one of the finest intellectuals of the 20th century. The Black Jacobins, his pioneering study of the Haitian Revolution, led by the charismatic, ex-slave Toussaint L'Ouverture, became a ground-breaking work of black history.

Minty Alley is ultimately light entertainment. This may surprise those familiar with James’s scholarly output, but will certainly please readers who enjoy knockabout drama and low intrigue. The novel is about a young man, Haynes, who cannot afford to keep his dead mother’s house and so is forced to take modest lodgings in a nearby barrack-yard (read: a slum). He is in search of excitement and his hopes are soon satisfied. When a serious betrayal disturbs the harmony of the house, Haynes is “pitchforked into the heart of the eternal triangle.” Minty Alley’s residents, which include a handful of complex and compelling characters, are pitted against one another in what begins as a fast-paced tale of deceit. But the novel suffers later from undeveloped sub-narratives and a few poorly crafted characters, including, lamentably, the protagonist.

Minty Alley by CLR JamesThe historical worth of Minty Alley cannot be disputed. It was the first novel by a black Caribbean author to be published in Britain. Booker-Prize winning author Bernardine Evaristo and Penguin have curated a landmark new series, Black Britain: Writing Back, which seeks to correct historic bias in British publishing and reconfigure black British literary history. Minty Alley is one of six lost and hard-to-find books by black writers that feature in the series. Out of print for decades, its re-release is laudable.

James was a writer with a social conscience. Minty Alley’s opening chapter introduces the barrack-yard as a place filled with “ordinary people”. James’s characters, the denizens of the slum, are studied with fascination and intellectual precision. There is the dominating figure of Nurse Jackson, whose verve and vigour are offset by her psychopathy and kleptomania. Mr Benoit, a serial womaniser, is grossly irresponsible and extraordinarily destructive, but he somehow remains likeable. The plight of his common-law wife, the inimitable, much-betrayed landlady, Mrs Rouse, offers up reams of pathos for the reader.

Minty Alley provides a rich literary rendering of working-class life in colonial Trinidad. James’s prose, though always competent and occasionally sublime, is not often richly descriptive, but his technical flair for writing relations of power allows him to capture the subtleties of a highly racialised society. Through impressive sleight of hand, he records the myriad ways that a social hierarchy based on skin colour – the “pigmentocratic Caribbean” that Evaristo describes in her introduction – functioned.

There is one critical flaw in the novel. James’s writing lacks an introspective quality, which results in the protagonist, Haynes, clearly modelled on the author himself, remaining weirdly detached from everyone and everything around him. He is little more than a voyeur for the first sixty pages of the novel – fashioning a hole in the wall in order to spy on others in the yard. Of course, this is a carefully deployed literary device. But it sometimes seems like James is either unwilling or unable to have his bookish hero do or say anything that would deprive him of his outsider status. Minty Alley remains a world apart to Haynes – and perhaps also to James, who did not come from the barrack-yard but simply sojourned there, much like a down-and-out Orwell in underworld Paris or London.

It is true that Haynes eventually leaves his peephole and gets involved in others’ affairs, but nothing like a true character ever emerges. He remains largely passive, observing, listening. His urges are pedestrian. Though described as intellectually superior, he frequently gives over to outright banality. Looking up at the stars, he asks: “Did people live there? And if they did, what sort of life did they live?”

As the novel wears on, and with two of the best characters absent from the action, Mrs Rouse’s heartbreak and indignation carries the story some distance – but simply not far enough. Secondary drama is provided by the landlady and her petulant niece, Maisie. But James’s attempts to build tension in anticipation of violent overhaul are ham-fisted and unimaginative. An argument flares up between Ma’ Rouse and Maisie and threatens to get violent. One of the lodgers intervenes and breaks up the fight. This scenario plays out almost ad nauseam. Haynes’ interest in Maisie is, frankly, galling. It is the protagonist’s only serious enmeshment with another character, and their interactions are awkward and stilted. Maisie, in any case, is portrayed as a hateful, immature brat, whose malice makes her irredeemable. Like Haynes, Maisie lacks depth. So, too, does their relationship, upon which the second half of the book rests.

Minty Alley is a decent novel, and though James went on to use his pen for arguably finer works of history and political theory, its rediscovery and republication is nevertheless an important event.


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