THE POLISHED HOE by Austin Clarke


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The sexual exploitation of poor black women in the British Caribbean—in a rambling, plotless tale (winner of the Giller Prize) from Clarke, a veteran West Indian writer/academic/diplomat.

The colony is the author’s own Barbados (here called Bimshire), and the period is post-WWII. Mary-Mathilda is a middle-aged black woman who lives in a spacious house on the sugar plantation, where she was installed by the almost-white plantation manager Bellfeels, who lives nearby with his wife and daughters. Bellfeels’s “Outside-Woman,” Mary started out, like her mother, as a fieldhand, and her fate was decided one Sunday in a churchyard when Bellfeels noticed her ripening into puberty and felt her up and down with his riding-crop, the prelude to his raping her during a church picnic, just as he had once done to her mother. For all her present material comforts, Mary has never forgotten that riding-crop, and she has been readying her old hoe for her mission of retribution and sacrifice. The story spans just a few hours on a Sunday night, when Mary summons the Sergeant to make a Statement. Has she murdered Bellfeels? The Sergeant doesn’t want to know, for Mary is a powerful woman who could end his career, and, besides he has lusted after her since childhood. So there will be no Statement, disappointing the reader who might have been expecting a modicum of suspense. Instead, the pair exchange memories of life in Bimshire. What emerges is a scorching indictment of the island’s power elite, who have connived at rape (including Mary’s) and murder, disposing of bodies and spiriting away criminals. Still, this bleak picture is warmed and softened by Clarke’s celebration of Bimshire life: its foods, plants, rum shops, and the fortitude of its regular folks as they laugh and curse in cadences that Clarke catches so expertly.

We are left with a memorable landscape of oppression but a problematic central figure. Is Mary now a militant champion of women’s rights? No way to know.

Pub Date: June 19th, 2003
ISBN: 0-06-055565-3
Page count: 480pp
Publisher: Amistad/HarperCollins
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1st, 2003