Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction Best Book (nominee)
Whitbread Prize Best First Novel
"Where I come from, disguise is the only truth and desire the only true measure of time," the riddling, feisty narrator of The Ventriloquist's Tale asserts. Pauline Melville explores the effects of both of these in her dark--and often deeply funny--narrative of forbidden love and the clash of cultures. Set in the Guyanese capitol of Georgetown and on its distant savannahs, Melville's first novel turns on the tragic absurdities of colonialism, capitalism, and fanaticism, not to mention a pair of very illicit relationships. In the 1920s, two mixed-race siblings find it surprisingly easy to be together and unsuspected:
Just like the brown and black patterns in the artwork on the woven baskets and sifters and matapees, where it is not always possible to tell foreground from background and the animal symbols are disguised by being embedded in a geometrical whole, Beatrice and Danny were miraculously concealed by their home setting.In the present-day strand, Chofy McKinnon, Danny's nephew, has an intense and tragic affair with Rosa Mendelson, an English academic looking into Evelyn Waugh's journey to Guyana in the 1930s. Waugh, possessed of "a pushed-up face and little pebble eyes," had stayed with the McKinnons, and forced Danny in particular to listen to hour after hour of Dombey and Son--a brilliant spin on Waugh's reportage from the Amazonias, not to mention his novel A Handful of Dust. Melville offers up an acute vision on Guyana's colonial past and present, and on the pull between nature and culture, superstition versus rationalism, blindness and sight. She knows that there is no easy middle ground, perhaps no middle ground at all. "You say we have to mix," Chofy's cousin cries. "What to do? We're destroyed if we mix. And we're destroyed if we don't." Readers will be hard-pressed to descry any moral in the astonishing Ventriloquist's Tale (though order and institutions aren't held in high esteem). As for forbidden love--it definitely doesn't conquer all, but its memory is bliss in Beatrice's later, respectable years: "She barely had time to remember that other love which had flowed always under the grind of daily life; a sweet underground river that sometimes broke through to the surface and made its own music, but mainly stayed hidden, so that she only carried the echoes of its song." --Kerry Fried
Pauline Melville conjures up vivid pictures both of savanna and forest and of city life in South America where love is often trumped by disaster. Unforgettable characters illuminate theme and plot: Sonny, the strange, beautiful and isolate son of Beatrice and Danny, the brother and sister who have a passionate affair at the time of the solar eclipse in 1919; Father Napier, the sandy-haired evangelist whom the Indians perceive as a giant grasshopper; Chofy McKinnon the modern Indian, torn between savanna life and urban future. This is a novel that embraces nearly a century, large in scope but intimate as a whisper, where laughter is never far from the scene of tragedy; a parable of miscegenation and racial elusiveness, of nature defying culture, magic confronting rationalism and of the eternally rebellious nature of love.
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Used availability for Pauline Melville's The Ventriloquist's Tale
August 1998 : USA Hardback
May 1997 : UK Hardback
June 1999 : USA Paperback
April 1998 : UK Paperback
May 1999 : UK Audio Cassette
June 2014 : USA, Canada, UK Kindle edition