I wasn’t going to take part in Stuckinabook and Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings’ 1936 Club (they do a year-themed read twice a year) as I didn’t have anything from 1936 on my TBR and I’ve been being really careful to only do book challenges from my TBR. But then I realised that this book, which has been republished this year in the list Bernadine Evaristo has curated for Penguin, “Black Britain Writing Back“, I had to go and buy a copy and read it. And I’m very glad I did!

Simon’s page here and Kaggsy’s here explain everything and hold the lists of what everyone has read this week.

C.L.R. James – “Minty Alley”

(2 April 2021)

This was the first novel by a Black Caribbean author to be published in England, and as Bernadine Evaristo points out in her introduction, he came as a lone figure in the 1930s, way before the Windrush generation and their chroniclers, pointing out the debt Sam Selvon owes to this work of social realism (I re-read and reviewed his “The Lonely Londoners” recently (in fact for the last Year Club, the 1956 Club!). It’s the fairly simple story of middle-class Haynes, 20 years old, his mother dead, who needs to move into a working-class boarding house for complicated financial reasons. In Minty Alley he grows a spine and allows himself to get involved with the various characters who live there, all seen in comparison to him, brighter and more colourful.

The sea of life was beating at the walls which enclosed him. Nervously and full of self-distrust, he had been fighting against taking the plunge, but he would have to sometime. (p. 6)

While a lot of the details of living in 1930s Trinidad are of course specific to the time and place, there is a real universality about this book, too. It reminded me of works by R.K. Narayan set in India, and also Patrick Hamilton’s “The Slaves of Solitude” set in a wartime London boarding house – the petty quarrels, the issues of food, poverty and its genteel hiding, the problem of rubbing along with others. Haynes is fortunate in that he has the mother figure of his old servant Ella, always keeping an eye on him, even if it’s from a distance. The town of Port of Spain is almost another character, providing a web of gossip and almost a chorus. Nothing can happen in one street without the whole town knowing.

Haynes tries to stay out of the arguments and issues among his landlady, her niece, the irrepressible Maisie, her wandering-eyed and -handed common-law husband, her faithful servant Philomen and the other residents, but soon finds himself getting drawn in, in a number of different ways. He’s seen as a gentleman and thus is able to have a positive and/or calming influence on the rest of the house, even Maisie, although she gets one up on him too on occasion.

There was scarcely an occasion Haynes could remember in which Maisie either through inadvertence or malice, or both, did not with infallible instinct say or do the thing most calculated to ignite Mrs Rouse. (p. 168)

Of course events can’t just jog along and must come to a head, with a hilarious scene which is once again both specific and universal. It’s the kind of book you can’t stop reading, and I do wish James had written more than just this one novel (he wrote a lot of books of biography and politics, but no other novels).

So an engaging, charming and funny book with a sharp edge of racism (especially against the Chinese origin population) and colourism (before colourism was talked about, according to the introduction but something I’d also noticed). I really recommend it as a lovely read in itself, but with historical and sociological interest, too.

Other books from 1936 I’ve read and reviewed here (I know I’ve read others, e.g. the Agatha Christies, George Orwell’s “Keep the Aspidistra Flying, but before the book blog!) …

Daphne du Maurier – Jamaica Inn

Winifred Holtby – South Riding

Margaret Mitchell – Gone with the Wind

Angela Thirkell – August Folly

Francis Brett Young – Far Forest