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‘Mama’s tears’, tough and tender

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07.DEC.07

by Oscar Allen

The title of the book “Were Mama’s Tears In Vain?” prepares the reader for a soft sentimental melodrama, but while sentiment and drama are not absent, this book is tough, even vicious. In the 5 stories which comprise the volume, we as readers come face to face with the passions, dilemmas, power play, dead ends and psychological constructions of early to mid 20th century Caribbean society.{{more}} There we meet persons caught in the mess of urban life and pastimes, village codes of conduct, estate prison camp and contest for domestic space. Byron Cox presents the spirit world, material misery, race and colour, gender and age forces, colonial contortions and sexual constraint as they interfere in and artfully mould, mark, mash and add majesty to the characters. The young & fragile black male and his unfolding is one of the constant concerns of this tastefully presented collection of tales. Richard Byron Cox has come good in this his first “novel”.

THE TEXT

“The Dead Man Living With Us” is a bit of a jumbie story, in which the ghost seems to be the non threatening type. He is even caught trying to solve the math problems in a school text book!

“…This white man dressed in a maroon-red coat, navy blue trousers, black boots and navy-blue military styled cap…” may raise questions in the minds of interactive readers. How did he become a billionaire; why did he prefer a girl to help him; was he using his wealth to secure an unfair advantage/partnership over the household; and as always, is he still around, this dead man living? This ghost strikes a somewhat melancholy note which also marks three of the other family stories in the book.

Two boys, Japheth and Boysie bear comparison. While Japheth is a mischievous sensitive boy with a mean streak, whose father is a village Pointer-leader; Boysie is of a more tender sensibility. His mother is trapped in the prison camp of estate extortion. Both boys-the tough and the tender; make it. Japheth confronts and resists the rigid codes of family and village order. He occupies a borderland.

Boysie adapts and develops the strong contrary spirit of his mother-suicide-slaughtered by the estate. From beyond the grave, her paraclete spirit nurtured him and his… guardian. Japheth wins for himself a tough and tenuous triumph, while Boysie wins a tense struggle as Mama’s tears and teachings confront and contradict the power and reach of Masa’s material order.

In the Sattou – Penniston contorted account of a white creole type Masa in his internal self-exile, one thing strikes me profoundly. It is not the explicit pain and burden that the patriarch generates, no, it is the sombre shadow of Shirley that haunts me. She is made mute because, in her youth, she slept outside (i.e. above) her class and colour. That violation mummified her, and moreover, her situation made me want to examine more closely the place of women in this novel about boys – young black males. I will turn to this question on another occasion.

THE ART OF BYRON COX

In this work, the technique, skill and craft of Byron-Cox are not on show. That is what impresses me in a career launching publication. Here, one can find no pompous melodrama or literary grandstanding. Even his interventions as narrator generally slide by the reader without drawing too much attention away from the tale. There is this art in the writing of the author. He carries you along so that you are reading without knowing that you are reading. You flow into the story.

It is worth nothing also that the author writes out of personal familiarity with his material. It rings true. Even as we recognize this fact, substantial research must lie behind the more distant contexts that he presents. Richard tells us that he grew up in suburban Kingstown, so when he represents estate life in ‘Mama’s Tears’, he is creating the setting based on his research. And yet is feels real. Inevitably, he slips in error on one or two matters of fact which do not harm the substance of his tale. Does it really matter if that the then Administrator – and others – misknows the title of his monarch? (This is the case in the advance copy which I am reviewing)

CONCLUSION

As he makes his debut as a writer of fiction, Richard Byron-Cox in raising the bar for those of our nationals who will follow the creative path in literature. He takes us into daily life experiences in which we can see and hear and question ourselves, and he takes us into paths which we would prefer not to tread and, without threat, he turns the stage set into a mirror. Look at Lord Orator’s well loved calypso about Labassie girls and the love-hate reception that it received. It made me blink as I recognized what was going on.

Without question, Richard Byron-Cox’s “Were Mama’s Tears In Vain” is a book that I recommend to all readers. Trust me.

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