This is the first novel I was nervous about teaching this semester. I knew Anand and Paton would go down pretty easy with my students, but this debut novel by George Lamming, originally published in 1953, is a shaggy dog of a book, with frequent stylistic shifts, and with its main character (only named as G, and loosely based on Lamming himself) often disappearing for multiple chapters at a stretch. Sometimes in this book, loving parents beat their kids, and friends fall out over dumb shit, and corruption seems to win. This could be harder to take in.
(Side note: Lamming was born and raised in Barbados but emigrated to the UK in 1951, and he worked for several years at the BBC, particularly on their Caribbean Voices program. Sadly, due to post-war scarcity, the BBC erased and reused their tapes regularly during this era, so no recordings of Lamming on the program survive, that I could find. This is a tragedy because just listen to this interview with him from 1960, the man had a perfect voice for radio, I would listen to hours of that. Sometimes he read poetry on the air! including that of future Nobel laureate Derek Walcott, from whom the title of this debut novel came! how history has robbed us.)
The shaggy-dog shape of the story is where Jane Alison’s book on narrative structure was a helper to me (and to the seminar). One of my students astutely observed on the first day, “This book feels like a meander,” and yes, that was a guiding light that helped orient the others as we read. Once we know this book is taking an indirect, wandering path to its final destination, it’s a lot easier to strap in for the journey.
So, to get to the plot: roughly speaking, In the Castle of My Skin is a coming of age novel set in Barbados, between roughly the mid-1930s to the mid-1940s. We meet young G on his ninth birthday, which coincides with terrible floods that rearrange his village; we follow him and the village alike (Lamming stated in later interviews and essays that he saw the village as being just as much of a character as G) as G grows up, and his path diverges from that of his childhood friends Bob, Boy Blue, and Trumper, who leave school at 14, whereas G begins attending a prestigious high school. (Side note: Lamming did indeed attend a prestigious high school near Bridgetown; FUN FACT: a later alumna of that same high school? RIHANNA.) We also watch things change in the village, as the long, slow process of decolonization, or the withdrawal of the British Empire, begins. G’s story is tentatively hopeful; the story of the village is a tragedy in slow motion, as the land changes hands and the villagers are pushed out of their homes, destroying a close-knit fabric of life that we’ve come to love over the course of the novel.
We can tell G is slowly growing towards becoming a writer: he mediates often on the power of language. But we also see how far he has to go: language seems to him, for much of the book, as a tool of control. If he can just learn to master it, he thinks, it will offer him a kind of power: “Language was a kind of passport. You could go where you like if you had a clean record. You could say what you like if you know how to say it. It didn’t matter whether you felt everything you said. You had language, good, big words to make up for what you didn’t feel.” It’s clear Lamming disagrees, and indeed, he wrote in a later essay that a writer has to learn to exist not just in his private world (i.e., “the castle of your skin”) but in the social world that is inhabited by others, because it is our relation to other people that give our lives meaning, and that animate our work with urgency. (It’s clear that the Lamming of 1953 understood this very well, in contrast to his young protagonist.)
So who should read this shaggy dog of a novel? Well, for one, if you ever enjoyed James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, you might like this: Joyce’s first novel is clearly a major influence for young Lamming, and the shifting style of the In the Castle of My Skin evokes Ulysses as well as Portrait. But also, Lamming is deeply moving in how he writes with deep love of his blackness and his Barbadian upbringing. Key scenes are often set at night, not in the day; he also stresses the beauty of dark-skinned characters like G’s friend’s Boy Blue, or village patriarch Pa. It is not held up against whiteness (there’s only one significant white character in the book): instead, Lamming wants to portray the blackness of his childhood as he experienced it as a child, as a simple fact of his world. One of the most moving lines of the novel, which lends the ending its hope, is G’s closing awareness of his village as a “marvel of blackness” as he prepares to leave it–suggesting both the velvety darkness of the night, and also the beauty of the people who formed him, like Pa, who leaves him with a “kiss of blessing” to carry him into the future, even as Pa himself prepares to go into a charity home for the elderly.
Perhaps the best part of teaching this novel was unpacking the final pages: they are ambiguous, but also moving, and Lamming’s challenge to us to slow down and read his complicated novel carefully pays off in the end. That isn’t to say it isn’t a book where you can sometimes see the narrative seams: it’s a debut novel in its imperfections as well as its energy. But it’s a terrific glimpse into another time and place, too, and also, if you’re in the frozen hinterlands this February like I am, give yourself a little vacation to Barbados and read this.
(Note: a pet pigeon is accidentally killed in Chapter 1. The death isn’t malicious or intended, nor is it lingered on, but it does happen and I know some of us are Does the Dog Die people, so heads-up.)