This story, the first novel by Richard Hughes, takes place in the 19th Century, and mixes the diverse subjects of humor, irony, satire, pirates, sexuality and children into a very interesting tale, with many sidebar stories tucked into the main theme.
The first part of the story has an eerily familiar ring and meteorological link with the December, 2004 tsunami-related disaster in Asia. In A High Wind, first there is an earthquake, then hurricane-force winds, followed by torrential rains (although no tidal wave) devastate the island and the British children who lived there are sent to England. However, on the way they are attacked by pirates and unwittingly kidnapped by those pirates. From there, the novel has a definite Lord of the Flies tone to it: the English children actually take over control of much of the activities on board, which is as bizarre a situation as some of the events in Lord of the Flies.
What Hughes has accomplished with the novel is not merely a literary study and psychological examination of how children behave under dire straights, or under stress in any form. Rather, he appears to have spun a very entertaining tale and one that was seemingly enjoyable for him to create. A question comes to mind by the reader at the very beginning: is Hughes actually one of the narrators? There seem to be several voices narrating this story. As the narrator voices change, so does their grasp of various languages.
Meantime, Hughes may indeed be the narrator at the start, and off and on through the novel; and it would seem that he is the opening narrator, because the story begins with the narrator looking down from far above the island of Jamaica, and giving the reader some important historical and geographical information about the island.
The initial narrator zooms slowly down to the island, and puts a spotlight on the Thornton family, including Emily, an eleven-year-old girl of much mystery and maturity (notwithstanding her youthfulness). Once the children are captured by the pirates, they write letters to Mr. And Mrs. Thornton; Emily's letter, surprisingly, discusses the cargo of turtles on the ship the children were on, the Clorinda, which is interesting in terms of what it leaves out about their capture.
The writing of the letter seems to give the impression that she is already quite grown up in terms of being able to handle extremely stressful situations with ease. Mature beyond her years, she becomes an enigma even to the narrator, especially after she murders Captain Vandervoort.
"I can no longer read Emily's deeper thoughts or handle their cords," the narrator writes on page 276. "Henceforth we must be content to surmise." On page 173, Emily offers the readers a chance to surmise as to her sophistication and maturity, as she makes a seemingly profound yet mysterious observation of the Dutch Captain Vandervoort, who is tied up on the floor: "There is something much more frightening about a man who is tied up than a man who is not tied up."
The narrator informs the reader through numerous passages that Emily is not only steeped in a stew of odd and even scary circumstances, because of her age and her level of maturity, but that she is clearly in a transitional time herself. She about to depart from her childhood, but is certainly not fully prepared for adulthood.
Is she a helpless victim of the bizarre circumstances surrounding her, or is she a callus murderer who carried out a killing with ice in her veins? The truth is, she is both victim and killer, and this is part of what makes the novel an interesting read; all children of all ages can show dramatically different sides to their personalities, and this example (through Emily) is apparently a literary exaggeration with a purpose.
The entire novel takes place within the period of twelve months, and during that time Emily goes through three distinct periods: the first is her life on Jamaica and her life on the Clorinda (she is without doubt a child in this time frame); the second is her time on the pirate ship (during which time her emerging puberty causes changes in her mental outlook); and third, is her time back with "civilized" society on the steamer and in London (where she learns to disguise some of her deeper inner thoughts, even to the point of hiding them from her own consciousness).
Emily's older sister, Margaret, 13, though not as pivotal to the plot as Emily, and really not as interesting a character as Emily, nonetheless gives the readers a hint of her sexuality (p. 54) when she notices "How handsome Mr. Thornton looked." Her character certainly must have been provocative to the reader in the 1930s, as a girl of that age on a pirate ship, of all places, following the mate Otto around the ship like a teenager with a crush; and of course she eventually moves into his cabin.
Readers are led to believe that Margaret -- while spending her nights with both the captain and the mate Otto -- only has sexual relations with Otto, and is later to become pregnant. And meanwhile, as clear is it is that Margaret has become sexually involved with a much older man (a pirate, at that), it is also fairly apparent that the author wants sex to be a significant part of this book.
The author obviously wants readers to understand Emily's emergence as a sexual being, and as an erotic object. On pages 135-6, Hughes describes the moment when Emily discovers her "self": "She slipped a shoulder out of the top of her frock: and having peeped in to make sure she really was continuous under her clothes, she shrugged it up to touch her cheek. The contact of her face and the warm bare hollow of her shoulder gave her a comfortable thrill, as if it was the caress of some kind friend ... "
In conclusion, what stands out in this book, among many very interesting stories within the whole story, is the way in which the narrator ducks in and out of seeming to be knowledgeable regarding what Emily's thoughts are, albeit from time-to-time seems to be fully inside Emily's vivid mind. For example, after the children are rescued and on board the steamer ship, on page 236, Emily has become fascinated with the stewardess, who has substantial breasts: "Was it conceivable that she [Emily] would herself ever grow breasts like that -- beautiful, mountainous breasts, that had to be cased in sort of a cornucopia? Or even firm little apples, like Margaret's?"
All in all, Hughes has written an entertaining, fascinating novel, and the literary style he employs -- which allows the reader to follow Emily's passage from childhood to a kind of self-conscious early adulthood -- is both enjoyable and educational as well.
Evelyn Waugh -- A Handful of Dust
Evelyn Waugh's novel is set in England in 1934, between WWI and WWII. The novel tells the story of very nice gentleman, Tony Last, who is an aristocrat, and who owns a Victorian country house, gothic style, called Hetton. Tony becomes very aggravated by his wife's infatuation for a young British socialite named John Beaver. Tony's wife is Lady Brenda, who is a cheating, lying, petty woman, who, by contrast, makes Tony seem like something near a saint, albeit he is pathetically naive in many ways.
Tony and Brenda's life is very much the life of leisure enjoyed by the very wealthy; they attend social events and go hunting, and life is good for both of them until John Beaver comes into the picture. Beaver has expensive tastes, but lives on modest income, and so he is quite enamored with the fact that Brenda (very wealthy of course), an older woman, takes an interest in him.
Brenda habitually lies to Tony -- and one of his biggest mistakes in this novel is trusting her, believing in her despite her selfishness and bad behavior -- and in fact she takes a modest apartment in London in order to carry on a sexual affair with Beaver. She tells Tony that the reason she needs to have an apartment in London is that she's decided to take up the study of economics -- and for the time being, he believes her; he busies himself in the country in his home, while she has a good time playing with her boyfriend in the city.
Tony, who resists getting angry throughout the novel until Brenda asks for a divorce, and expects to support Beaver on alimony from her husband; moreover, she expects that he will sell the estate he dearly loves (Hetton) in order for her to carry on her absurd romance with a much younger man, Beaver. And there is a very cold scene in the book, when Tony and Brenda's son, John Andrew, is tragically killed while hunting; Brenda abandons…