Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Books: This Side Jordan

Margaret Laurence’s first novel, This Side Jordan (published in 1960) is set in 1957 on the eve of Ghana’s independence. The story revolves around two young couples, African – Nathaniel and Aya Amegbe – and English – Johnnie and Miranda Kestoe. Although narrated in the third person, everything is seen from the perspective of the two men – with more interior dialogue accorded to Nathaniel than to Johnnie. Even Laurence herself did not think this novel was entirely successful. In 1969 she admitted that “the novel contains too much of Nathaniel’s inner monologues” – a criticism I agree with.

The wives are important characters, but seen through the lens of their husbands. This is interesting choice given that Laurence was to become later known as the creator of some of our strongest literary female characters (Hagar in The Stone Angel and Morag in The Diviners). Perhaps her decision to write from the perspective of men demonstrates her uncertainty about her own voice as a writer.

In 1956, as Laurence was finishing her manuscript, she wrote to her friend Adele Wiseman, “who am I to write about Africa? I don’t know a damn thing about it, relatively speaking. I’ve had the nerve to write half the thing from an African’s point of view.”

There is a vivid authenticity in her descriptions – the crowded markets and bustling streets of Accra, the fading clubs where Europeans gathered to cling to their former glory. But the voices of her protagonists don’t quite ring true for me.

Her audacity in adopting their point of view speaks to her imaginative and creative abilities, and there is no doubt that she has incredibly keen powers of observation and literary talent. But I kept getting the impression that she was interpreting, as perhaps she could not help but doing, all that she so studiously observed through her own foreign point of view.

As I read this book I recalled reading a memoir by Malian author Amadou Hampâté Bâ and being swept up in a narrative and perspective so culturally different from my own. While Laurence is able to masterfully convey the exterior aspects of a culture foreign to her own, ultimately she could not enter interpret it authentically.

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