The Chosen Place, The Timeless People

The Chosen Place, The Timeless People - Paule Marshall

This was difficult to read. Perhaps all post-colonial novels should be. Marshall fills her novel with contradictions. Lush, evocative prose about the sea and landscape of the Caribbean is followed by the white heat of the sun with a long working day ahead. With harsh clarity her prose considers the region's identity as a hedonistic paradise for the moneyed and white and as the site of centuries of subjugation. Published in 1969 the book makes clear that even after abolition there are few who escape the corrupting influences of colonialism. Marshall creates Bourne Island as a representative island nation in the most need of help, but previous projects there have proven misguided.

Anthropologist Saul Amron is returning to field work for the first time in years. Along with a field assistant, Allen, they are going to the remote Caribbean island along with Amron's new wife, Harriet, to assess the potential for a new development project in the poverty stricken Bournehills district. This could change the lives of all who live there for the better. Merle Kimbona, a prominent eccentric, introduces the Amrons to the districts ways and is often remarked on as a symbol of all the mysteries of Bournehills and its people. Her friend Vere has arrived back from a labor scheme on the same plane as the research team, and he serves as a different sort of symbol altogether for Allen.

That subject, and sexual politics in general, was the most troubling one within 'The Chosen Place, The Timeless People'. Allen is treated with a great deal of sympathy by the author, but his situation is portrayed as nothing but an affliction. The only other mention of homosexuality is symbolic colonialism - the relationship of a wealthy white woman with a dependent black girl. The sexual politics of the book are overwhelmingly negative. Merle's accusing finger points out the pedophiles who come to Bourne Islands shores and from which "no child over the age of 3 is safe". In the same chapter there is a searing scene where the underage waitresses scornfully offer themselves up to the crowd. Even the seemingly happy relationships among the researchers and the islanders are revealed to be a great, helpless burden.

While relations between white and black people are less restrictive on Bourne Island than in Great Britain or the United States, there is tension nonetheless. Marshall reserves her harshest criticism for those islanders who line their pockets with the rewards of self-governing and remove themselves mentally and physically from the working poor. Early on in the novel Merle notes cynically how the bureaucrats and politicians think themselves too good to drink rum like their old fellows and yet keep the women segregated from their discussions. Harriet, a scion of wealthy Philadelphia family that made its fortune in the slave trade, has the hardest time adjusting to life on the island. She is all good intentions, but cannot drop her reserve. There is a choice on the island to succumb to inertia and do things the way they have always been done or fight, perhaps futilely, for something better. Personalities of the characters clash and their very contradictions are lifelike. In the end...the book is a critique, but not without hope.