As the UK and Commonwealth mark Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee, here’s a book from one of the 16 sovereign states around the world that still count her as their constitutional monarch.
I heard about writer Merle Collins through the NGC Bocas Lit Fest, an annual literary festival that takes place in Trinidad & Tobago, which writer Vahni Capildeo tipped me off about. Now in its second year, the event is home to the OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature and Collins’s short story collection The Ladies are Upstairs was on the 2012 shortlist.
The characters in Collins’s stories are people caught between worlds. Whether she’s describing the elderly woman Rain, ‘still lost in a childhood she couldn’t forget’, or the young man trapped between the strange disappearance of the woman hitchhiker he picks up on a lonely road and the conclusions of his rational mind, the author delights in pitting conflicting influences against one another in the rugged terrain of the psyche.
As the title suggests, class has a considerable part to play. Several of the characters, in particular Doux, who links the majority of the stories together, run up against the limits imposed by station. ‘You Should See Them in Church with Glasses on!’, in which the young Doux is unjustly accused of stealing during her first job as a maid, is particularly memorable.
In addition, Collins’s fascination with psychogeography and the pull of the supernatural makes for several deliciously spooky tales. ‘Big Stone’, an account of a midwife’s eerie encounter with a child during a walk home at dusk, is the best of these. Telling the story exclusively through reported speech, which gives the narrative a weird and distant feel, the writer draws on the atrocities buried in the Isle of Spice’s colonial past to create a compelling and unnerving backdrop:
‘What kind of night? Well, you know how those old estate places were. Those places used to have a lot of pain and wickedness in the past, but she wanted to emphasise that they were not like that today.’
The shared cast of characters, myths and memories that tie many of the stories together, give much of the work a familiar feel, so that by the final tales you feel as though you are part of the community, with a stake in the common heritage on which they rest. This makes the last piece – in which Doux, now an old woman living in an alarmed granny flat with her daughter in the USA, contemplates her loss of independence and approaching death – particularly moving.
Seen in the context of the celebration of one woman’s 60-year stint at the head of an association of a quarter of the world’s nations, this striking yet subtle collection of stories from one of its remotest corners reveals powerful truths about the common traits that link its subjects and the rest of the world.
The Ladies are Upstairs by Merle Collins (Peepal Tree Press, 2011)