THE VENTRILOQUIST'S TALE by Pauline Melville

THE VENTRILOQUIST'S TALE

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KIRKUS REVIEW

“All stories are told for revenge or tribute,” says the unnamed narrator here. Not until late in this prodigiously inventive and stirring novel is it clear that this one is told for both. Britisher Melville, author of a story collection not published here (Shape-Shifter), sets her novel in Guyana, the former British colony. Hovering over it is the shade of Evelyn Waugh, who traveled to Guyana in 1933 and memorably depicted the colony as a kind of anteroom to hell in his story “The Man Who Liked Dickens.” Rosa Mendelson, a literary critic, now arrives in Guyana five decades later to research Waugh’s travels. She is warned that it’s “a country where you will have to surrender to the unexpected. The ferry will break down . . . You are at the mercy of the random.” The random in her case leads to a romance with Chofy, a Wapisiana Indian, through whom Rosa discovers the beauties of Guyana’s jungles and savannahs and the restorative (if ambiguous) pleasure of stories. The body of the novel explores several related themes, including Rosa’s discovery of the ways aboriginal and Western cultures tragically continue to misunderstand one another—one such misunderstanding bringing about the death of Chofy’s young son. Melville is intrigued also by the ways myths shape and are shaped by human longings, a theme explored in the tale of two of Chofy’s ancestors, a brother and sister involved in an incestuous relationship that seems, in part, the living out of an ancient Wapiniana legend. For the Wapisiana, it is tales that possess true life; the mundane matter of everyday life “is an illusion behind which lay the unchanging reality of dream and myth.” Melville’s wise and artful fiction suggests, in Rosa’s fate, some of the ways the West and the larger world, as well as myth and the mundane, might find common ground Rich, penetrating, idiosyncratic work from a new, uniquely gifted storyteller.

Pub Date: Sept. 3rd, 1998
ISBN: 1-58234-009-9
Page count: 368pp
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1st, 1998




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