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Redlegs, By Chris Dolan

 

The history of the “poor whites” of the Caribbean is a rich and controversial one that many novelists would be wary of tackling.

Not so Chris Dolan, who has a record of dealing with the political legacies of colonialism. His previous book traced the story of Ethel Macdonald, a Glaswegian who reported for the anarchists during the Spanish Civil War.

Redlegs also places a woman at the centre, but Elspeth Baillie is a very different proposition. It is 1830, and Elspeth, the most eye-catching member of a family of Scottish actors, is invited to Barbados by the owner of a sugar plantation, Lord Coak. But soon after Elspeth arrives, a storm destroys both her acting ambitions and the titled young man she hoped to marry.

At this point, an exotic romance becomes politically fascinating. Coak leaves Elspeth in charge of his plantation along with his disgruntled overseer, Captain Shaw. In the face of a dwindling local population, they decide to import women workers from Scotland to attract white men and reinvigorate the colony. But the women are a bedraggled lot. Unsuitable relationships follow in this strange new Caledonia, where children are born who have to be hidden or given away. A violent outcome seems inevitable.

Dolan does a dangerous thing midway through his novel, changing the focus from Elspeth's hopes and dreams to the fate of the new arrivals. This switch could have been disastrous, but he handles it with ease, showing how a slightly silly young girl develops into a cool plantation mistress, dimly aware of the privations of slavery.

Elspeth cannot leave the plantation, panicking whenever she approaches its boundaries. Like the Scotswomen she has imported; like the black servants whose parents were slaves; like factory worker Golondrina, bought in Cuba when slavery was still legal, Elspeth too is a prisoner of this colony. This is a powerful, disturbing tale, written with scrupulous care both for words and their hidden meanings, as well as for the history of men and women forced to live and work for a doomed, immoral cause.

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