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The Ventriloquist’s Tale by Pauline Melville (thoughts)

September 8, 2011


My reading list is full of posts about the arrival of Carl’s wonderful R.I.P. challenge, a celebration of all things spooky and gothic. So I thought this was the perfect time to tell you about The Ventriloquist’s Tale, a book I’m surprised isn’t better known in the blogosphere, considering its rich gothic tones. Melville is Guyanese, and this is set in Guyana (a small South American country that borders Venezuela, Brazil, Suriname, and the Atlantic), which makes it what I would call ‘tropical’ gothic. I’m not sure if y’all know what I’m talking about, but essentially many of the tropes of traditional British gothic lit (secrets, taboo, family curses, isolation, decay, religion, etc.) re-imagined in a lush setting and intertwined with colonial and postcolonial themes. But I don’t want to make it sound like an ‘issue’ book: Melville is at heart a storyteller, and the book’s narrative grabbed me from the first page. The story moves back and forth between two primary love stories: a modern-day affair between Choky, a Guyanese man visiting the capital from the provinces, and Rosa, a British scholar visiting for research and a 1930s affair between two of Choky’s relatives; it’s sometimes difficult to balance multiple narrative threads, but Melville pulls it off with aplomb. Meanwhile, Guyana is vividly rendered: it’s almost one of the major characters, it receives so much loving attention. And the writing is just so intelligent: there is a lot of skewering here of various tropes and stereotypes and Western presentations of ‘Amazon’ tribes which was great fun. It reminds me a bit of Byatt, although more accessible (the prose isn’t nearly as baroque, nor is the cast of characters as sprawling). All in all, a book to lose yourself in, and one that made me want to get my hands on more of Melville!

If I’ve made you curious, you can read the first chapter online for free; unfortunately, this is already out of print, but hopefully that taste will convince you to track down a copy!

Suggested Companion Reads (R.I.P. participants take note: I think all three of the fiction books on this list would also be great additions to your challenge pool!)

  • Angels & Insects by A.S. Byatt (Since I mentioned her! This collection of two novellas is what I kept thinking of while I read The Ventriloquist’s Tale.)
  • Cereus Blooms at Night by Shani Mootoo (More tropical gothic goodness!)
  • A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore (The other gothic novel featuring incest that I picked up thanks to Orange July and ended up loving.)
  • Chrysalis by Kim Todd (Wonderful biography of a fascinating eighteenth century German woman who travelled to Suriname in order to study the life cycle of moths.)
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14 Comments leave one →
  1. September 8, 2011 7:17 am

    Nice review, Eva! A gothic story set in Guyana – that looks really interesting! I loved your description – “the prose isn’t nearly as baroque, nor is the cast of characters as sprawling” :)

  2. September 8, 2011 10:19 am

    This does sound really good. I enjoy Gothic things, so it sounds up my alley!

  3. September 8, 2011 12:38 pm

    This sounds really great, sad to hear it is out of print!

    • September 13, 2011 8:44 am

      I know: I can’t believe how quickly some books go out of print! And it tends to be the international ones. :(

  4. September 8, 2011 6:26 pm

    Oooh, this really does sound wonderful…hope it won’t be too hard to track down a copy. You know, ’cause I don’t already have enough books to read here. Many of them because of you. :P

  5. September 8, 2011 8:24 pm

    Umm…am I the only one that is adding all of these books to my TBR list for the R.I.P. challenge to check out??? LOL! This sounds really interesting and I hope I can get my hands on a copy.

    • September 13, 2011 8:44 am

      Yay: they’re all really wonderful books! :D

  6. September 9, 2011 11:14 am

    Cool! I don’t think I’ve read a book exactly like this flavor of Gothic, but it sounds ridiculously good!

  7. September 11, 2011 1:20 am

    Tropical gothic sounds like an awesome category! You’ve sold me on this one. There’s one copy in my library system so luckily I can get my hands on it!

  8. September 12, 2011 3:34 pm

    I too like the sounds of “tropical gothic” and of this book. Thanks for the review!

  9. September 13, 2011 8:45 am

    I’m glad people didn’t think I was crazy calling things ‘tropical gothic’! In the past, I’ve called it Caribbean gothic, but I’m not sure if Guyana would be considered Caribbean or Latin American.

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