From the missionary position

THE BOOK OF COLOUR by Julia Blackburn, Cape pounds 9.99
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The Independent Culture
IN A Clip of Steel, a memoir by Thomas Blackburn, a poet and Julia Blackburn's father, a young boy's white father tries to bleach his creole son's embarrassingly dark skin with peroxide and lemon juice. The same unforgettable nightly ritual occurs in Julia Blackburn's "novel" - her book's reliance on her family story might question its status as fiction - and is the crux on which rests this poetic, looping meditation on family unhappiness.

Julia Blackburn's impetus in reworking the stories of her father and grandfather is to exorcise family ghosts. She begins: "... when your house had been visited by the plague, then it was a good idea to shut a pig in the infected rooms and leave it there for a day and a night. In the morning you could open the door and drive the pig into the world and it would take the sickness with it ..." The pestilence she wants to cleanse is a compound of racial hatred, sexual guilt, silence and madness.

This is no conventional narrative, rather a concoction of impression and emotion, doubling through time, turning back to memories that are shared or appropriated. "Is it possible," she asks, "to inherit memories just as well as the colour of eyes and hair...? Is it possible that I can remember my father's childhood as if it was something I had experienced myself...?" Memory, or childhood reality, can be invented, too: thinking herself back into the past is the "fiction" in this history.

It begins with the grandfather, a stern white missionary to an island in the Indian Ocean. He is there, his son knows, to "stamp out copulation" and to hunt the devil. And the devil, for him, is a black man with a pink tongue, his sex hanging between his thighs even darker than his skin. The boy sees the black sea slugs stranded on the shore, and Evalina the servant laughs and tells him that "his father the missionary had cut them from the bodies of all the wicked fornicators and thrown them into the sea." She adds that "After dark they all come creeping back to where they belong ..."

Yet the good missionary has himself married a woman of the island; hence the colour of his son's skin. But she is claimed by her people, in the fight between "the forces of light and the forces of darkness"; Bonhomme Michel comes to the house one day, and she is cursed. The boy and his mother leave for the island of Mauritius; there his beautiful mad mother disappears for good, and Eliel is put into the care of an uncle, who educates him for the church, England, and a life as a white man.

Whether Julia Blackburn's talking pig has carried off the plague isn't clear. Her characters begin and end in hospital wards, confused and restless; for herself she appends a peaceful postscript. We are left, at the end of this slight and airy construction, with a renewed sense of how inexorably and efficiently man hands on misery to man.

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