A High Wind in Jamaica

high windIn Richard Hughes’s amazing novel A High Wind in Jamaica, six English children from two different families are growing up in the lush wet heat of Jamaica. Despite the fact that they are quite young (ranging in age from twelve to three), they are more or less independent of their parents, ranging wherever they want to go and encountering danger with the intrepidity (or indifference) of ignorance. But after a terrible hurricane (the eponymous high wind in Jamaica) levels their home, their parents decide the children must go back to England, where they will be safe.

This, of course, is where the high adventure begins. Not a week out of port, the merchantman to which the children have been entrusted falls into the hands of pirates, and the children are captured. These are neither vicious pirates, à la Blackbeard, nor campy pirates of the Caribbean, but rather down-at-heel German pirates (I know!) who have no earthly idea what to make of the horde of children that has invaded the barque. The story that follows, of how the children sail with pirates and find their way home, is one of bizarre humor, secrets and lies, unexpected violence, seduction and innocence, and is frankly one of the strangest novels I’ve ever read.

The plot summary I’ve just given you sounds as if it could be a wonderful children’s novel, full of rollicking good times. It’s not — not any more than Lord of the Flies or Huckleberry Finn are children’s novels just because their protagonists are children. This novel is a carefully-crafted presentation of the idea that children are quite different from adults, and think differently, in a way that we might call insane if an adult thought this way.

Possibly a case might be made out that children are not human…; but I should not accept it. Agreed that their minds are not just more ignorant and stupider that ours, but differ in kind of thinking (are mad, in fact): but one can, by an effort of will and imagination, think like a child, at least in a partial degree…

The children create their own reality, which is sensual, primal, separate from adult “civilized” notions because ignorant of them, and utterly resilient. We see most of the book’s action through Emily’s eyes, the oldest daughter of one of the families. To her, adult relationships, or relationships between adults and children, are confusing, uncomfortable, bewildering, ecstatic, luminous fascinating, responsible for weird alliances and even weirder behavior. She survives an earthquake, a hurricane, the casually brutal death of one of their number, capture by pirates, and oddly lurid, feverish experiences like sleeping with an alligator — and yet at the end, her memories of what happened blend with, and are mostly replaced by, what adults expect her to have experienced.  Everyone lies. Almost everyone keeps secrets to a pathological degree. Only the children are expert at it.

In the end, Hughes has created a wicked spin on Rousseau’s Romantic idea of the child-innocent. Yes, he says, children are closer to nature than adults are. And do you know what nature is really like? In a sly aside, he compares lawyers and the novelist’s trade:

After all, a criminal lawyer is not concerned with facts. He is concerned with probabilities. It is the novelist who is concerned with facts, whose job it is to say what a particular man did do on a particular occasion: the lawyer does not, cannot be expected to go further than to show what the ordinary man would be most likely to do under presumed circumstances.

Hughes shows us the facts, and whether we like them or not, we feel them as true. This book is as fascinating, as dangerously delicious, as a tropical fruit you’ve never seen before. Taste it at your own peril.

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11 Responses to A High Wind in Jamaica

  1. litlove says:

    This sounds really intriguing. I’m certainly going to see whether I can get hold of a copy. Thank you for the great review!

  2. Steph says:

    I read Huck Finn for the first time last year and LOVED it, so I’m definitely interested in checking this book out. You’re right that based on your initial description I couldn’t figure out if this book was aimed at kids or adults (it has pirates!), so thanks for clarifying. I love books that have many layers for the reader to penetrate and ponder, so I’ll have to keep an eye out for this one.

  3. Jenny says:

    Litlove — I hope you do read it. It was very difficult to pin it down in a review, both because it was a very challenging novel and because I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about it. But it was definitely *good*, no matter what. I look forward to your opinion!

    Steph — Don’t misunderstand, this book is not like Huck Finn except that it’s an adult novel featuring children as protagonists. But if you like layered, subtle, rather dark books, this is definitely for you.

  4. Dorothy W. says:

    I have a copy of this on my shelves, and I’m really intrigued now, because before reading your review I had no idea what the book was about and you make it sound fascinating. Thanks!

  5. Jenny says:

    Dorothy — I would love to see your take on it!

  6. Danielle says:

    I’ve always wondered about this one. It’s one of the titles on the Modern Library 100 Best novels list, which for a while I was reading from. It sounds very good actually–one of those morally ambiguous tales. I’ll have to keep any eye out for it.

  7. What a lovely review this is – I have really enjoyed reading it. I was bowled over by this book for the reasons that you cover here and have linked to your review in my latest post.

    Thanks for sharing


  8. peter says:

    I read the book even I was not motivated to finish it until last night when the conditions were right. its a difficult book as its supossed to be modernist and creates an artistic impression that only the reader can subjectively interpret realizing at the end that it all comes to experimentation of ‘readings’ and poses a threat to conventionality and comfort were are inclined to.

  9. Jenny,
    Thanks. I’ve been (re)reading this with my son (schoolwork) and casting around on the net for views on it. Yours is much the most insightful I have found. Other reactions to it have seemed conventional, which is ironic since the most striking overall feature of this novel is its superb ability to get to realities which lie behind conventions – about what children are like, about criminals (pirates), about murder, friendship, the wisdom of a judicial system, and the results of powerful experiences, just to cite some of the most important elements in the book.
    (currently) euphorbius (but soon to change to a new alias)

    • Jenny says:

      Thank you so much for your comment, Connor — this is one of the books that has really stayed with me over the years. I agree with you about its unconventionality, especially about the nature of childhood. It can seem brutal, especially in its mischievously sensual take on Rousseau, but (and?) I think it’s fantastically interesting. I haven’t read anything else by Hughes, have you?

  10. Ernest says:

    Once again big up to richard hughes because of A HIGH WIND IN JAMAICA ,it is a good book to read

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