Lies in the land of promise

THE COUNTING HOUSE by David Dabydeen Cape pounds 9.99
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The Independent Culture
Some literary historians see the origins of the novel in the agony aunt and uncle columns of 18th-century journals. For an anxious bourgeoisie troubled by new wealth and unfamiliar etiquette, the novel was like a pattern book. Here's how to behave, in love and war. Add to this the tradition of fantastical, comic and scabrous writing flourishing since the Middle Ages, and you got a marvellous new plant, sturdy and blooming, even if to some it was a common weed. We've learned now how the culture that produced this bloom was mulched on colonial exploitation and greed. Jane Austen hints that Fanny Price, in Mansfield Park, marries into a fortune made on the backs of black people. Charlotte Bronte allowed Jane Eyre her feminist independence, stolen from the sweat of slaves. Jean Rhys tried to imagine the sufferings of the first Mrs Rochester, in class terms a winner but a loser when it came to leaving paradise.

Contemporary writers, marrying modernist artifice to political and religious notions of inspired truth-telling, are more open, fiercer and less forgiving. As the imperialist chickens come home to roost, poets and story-tellers like Grace Nichols, Caryl Phillips, Fred D'Aguiar and David Dabydeen sing out to us how it was and is and might have been. Novels by these writers draw on a rich weave of lyrical and lamenting writing, and the British novel, suspected by some of terminal malaise, is given the kiss of life by their reinvigoration of the English language.

David Dabydeen's beautifully written story traces a passage from India. Slavery has been officially abandoned, but cheap labour is still needed. The Counting House follows the young couple Vidia and Robini, growing up and getting married in a small Indian village amid grinding poverty which seduces them to the solutions of violence, superstition and despair. The most potent promise, however, is made by the recruiter who cuts through the warnings of the village elder and offers the paradise regained of Plantation Albion in British Guiana, the territory run with cruel and ruthless efficiency by one Gladstone, an uncle of the future British Prime Minister. The promised land turns out to be a prison: they, and half a million other "coolies", have been sold into slavery and have to learn how to survive alongside the "niggers", whose interests do not always coincide with theirs.

Dabydeen is scrupulously unsentimental. His love for his characters is revealed by his scrutiny of their humanity and consequent imperfections. Rohini longs for her husband to be a real man, whatever that is, as a route out of having to serve her mother-in- law. She deploys her sexuality to goad Vidia into action. He is a dreamer, ambitious but unrealistic, unhappily discovering his power as a husband to hit his wife and be criticised by no one. Their misery and frustrated longings burn off the page. The major character in the novel, however, is Miriam, the black woman abused by Gladstone, abandoned by her parents, who lives doggedly and roughly to bring up her brothers and spare enough kindness for Kampta, the southern Indian whose periodic rebellions are punished by savage beatings. Miriam is a creature out of myth and legend, yet utterly ordinary. That is her grace.

Dabydeen's grace, as a poet turned novelist also, is to give his characters' imaginations and inner lives voices in prose. He creates an English that can be true to the tongue spoken by Rohini in India and Miriam in Guiana, that can simultaneously satirise the uptightness of white masters, deprecate the slaves' belief that Latin is a "free" tongue, and savagely delineate how desperate people must break up the masters' discourse, if they are to survive it, and refashion it in their own mocking, poetic way. This is a marvellous novel.