KWAKU: or The Man Who Could Not Keep His Mouth Shut by Roy Heath
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KWAKU: or The Man Who Could Not Keep His Mouth Shut

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A first American edition of the 1982 novel (winner of England's Guardian Prize) that introduced the appealing antihero of Heath's recent The Ministry of Hope (1997). Protagonist Kwaku Cholmondeley is a native Guyanese householder whose struggles to support his ever-increasing brood lead him into an amusing succession of schemes, scams, and misadventures (he blithely characterizes himself as ""shoemaker. . . inveterate liar, would-be photographer, near-bigamist and father of eight children""). The tale of his fortunes is both a delicious episodic picaresque and a tightly structured narrative that consistently reveals and develops character as it traces a whirlwind path through the Babbitt-like Kwaku's variously successful and disastrous enterprises: the arrangement of his marriage to the formidable Miss Gwendoline; a checkered career as a ""healer"" in the metropolis of New Amsterdam; and several seriocomic attempts to provide for and settle his troublesome children (the most memorable of whom are his ""cantankerous"" twin sons and his headstrong favorite daughter Philomena). Kwaku falls into adultery as effortlessly and inevitably as he takes to lying, and displays character flaws sufficient to destroy a less resourceful man. But Heath so persuasively communicates Kwaku's genuine desire to become a better man and his essentially loving nature that few readers will fail to identify with him. This accomplished fiction is further enriched by vigorous descriptions of Guyanese customs and family life, and sparkling dialogue filled with laugh-out-loud pidgin English inversions (""Is why you laugh?""). Heath is a master of droll, understated comedy; his affectionate empathy with his characters is never for a moment compromised by condescension. He's a somewhat flintier R.K. Narayan, and there's more than whiff of Kipling in his avuncular fascination with scramblers and hustlers. A wonderful novel, which stands impressively both on its own and in tandem with its equally irresistible sequel. There's no longer any doubt that Heath is one of the world's best writers.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1997
Page count: 254pp
Publisher: Marion Boyars