The Guadeloupian novelist (Windward Heights, 1999, etc.) remembers her privileged but harsh childhood, and the long-coming compassion and awareness that arose from it.
Winner of the 1999 Prix Yourcenar (for a French-language work by a US resident), Tales is comprised of 17 vignettes that reveal the intricacies of Guadeloupian society and the matching complexities of the author’s parents and how they made her a wary rebel throughout her youth. Born into a prominent black family whose parents believed they were the “most brilliant and the most intelligent people alive,” Condé (French Caribbean Literature/Columbia Univ.) is the last of eight children, and from childhood feels slighted by the “commonplace incidents” surrounding her birth, which leave her with the desire to return to the womb and “rediscover a happiness” she knew she had lost “forever.” School and everyday life bring little comfort: She alternately faces the injustice of being beaten by a mysterious boy for her family’s inconsiderate treatment of a servant and by a white girl for being black. She is allowed to play with French-speaking children when the family is in Paris, but forbidden to play with Creole mates in Guadeloupe. This mix leads Condé, at age 10, to determine her parents “alienated,” and vow not to be so herself. Thus she spent the next several years rebelling, coming to some solace only as she accepted her mother in her old age and embraced her Caribbean identity. Throughout, Condé relates her experiences with the decisiveness of youth and the imperiousness of her mother, whose complexity she seems to have inherited as much as the arthritis she decries. Fittingly, the author dedicates this work to her mother.
While the relentless losses, injustices, and unkindnesses make for disturbing reading—as does the author’s ungratefulness and cramped take on life—this is a useful look at the psychological consequences of intolerance.