SHAPE-SHIFTER by Pauline Melville


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 A first collection of 12 stories (winner of the Guardian Prize in England) that shifts intelligently between London, Guyana, and the Caribbean: very good on local patois and custom, as well as dramatizing a sense of dislocation and a yearning for home. ``Eat Labba and Drink Creek Water,'' a series of instances on ocean-hopping juxtaposed to variations on the myths of El Dorado, most explicitly voices this mood: ``We do return and leave and return again, criss-crossing the Atlantic, but whichever side of the Atlantic we are on, the dream is always on the other side.'' In ``A Disguised Land,'' a woman in England from Jamaica for an unhappy reunion with her mother kites checks and goes on the dole in order to feed her kids, then gets a jail term while pregnant and, after delivering the baby, escapes with it, only to return to the jail with a TV crew--having made an adjustment of sorts to her new home. In ``The Iron and the Radio Have Gone,'' the roles are reversed when a well-meaning Quaker woman goes to Guyana and fails to adapt when confronted by a break-in, street urchins, and various other manifestations of local color. Other stories are quirkier, but there's usually some sort of intercultural transaction at the center of every piece: ``the Conversion of Millicent Vernon,'' for instance, finds the title character trying to save her rotting teeth by pledging ``secret allegiance to the Congo pump tree,'' recommended by a local spirit-man. ``You Left the Door Open,'' about the transformations of a woman attacked while she's sleeping, has a paranoid film noir feel to it, along with a manic edge hovering between horror and black humor. Even the few pieces that are structurally flimsy have a strong sense of place and dialect. A promising debut: Melville's transatlantic stories, in particular, capture the conflict between the exotic and the ordinary.

Pub Date: Sept. 13th, 1991
ISBN: 0-679-40438-4
Page count: 176pp
Publisher: Pantheon
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1st, 1991


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