Diana McCaulay’s new novel, Huracan, tells the story of her Jamaican homeland through three separate narratives, two of them historical and the third set – more or less – in the present day. The primary narrative is that of Leigh McCaulay, who returns to modern day Jamaica after the death of her mother. Alienated as a result of her fifteen years in America and, even more so, by her white skin, Leigh’s story is that of the search for identity as she struggles to equate notions of home with the reality she experiences. She first works in a shelter for the homeless, an apt occupation for someone desperately searching for her own sense of home. Later she helps run a former sugar plantation that is now a tourist attraction for those package holidaymakers who can drag themselves from the beaches. It is this role as tourist guide that forces Leigh to confront the legacy of slavery, and ask herself whether the past can be packaged as a historical attraction for affluent white tourists.
Leigh’s arrival is juxtaposed with those of two Scotsmen (both real-life characters and purported forebears of the author) – Zachary Macauley, who comes to the island to work as a bookkeeper some two centuries before Leigh’s return, and John Macauley, a Baptist missionary whose arrival falls exactly a century after Zachary’s. Zachary’s is the more compelling journey, as he is forced to confront the realities of slavery whilst working on the same sugar plantation that Leigh will one day show tourists around. Initially shocked, he eventually becomes inured to the barbaric acts he witnesses. Nevertheless, the seeds of doubt are sewn which will lead to his becoming an ardent abolitionist in later life. John Macauley is a somewhat less sympathetic character. A naïve and at times self-centred missionary, his work will also take him to the same plantation, now shrouded with a sense of tragedy which foreshadows John’s own tragic fate.
Whilst the three narrative threads dovetail neatly together, there is a certain imbalance to the novel. Huracan is divided into three ‘books’. Book One focuses exclusively on Leigh’s return to Jamaica in 1986. Her story then disappears for the length of Book Two (some one hundred-plus pages), which alternates between Zachary’s story (1786-1787) and that of John (1886-1887). We are finally reunited with Leigh at the beginning of Book Three, which alternates between all three narrative threads. Whilst this structure fits the overarching themes of the separate sections (”Reunion”, “Genesis” and “Ferment” respectively), it does make for a slightly uneven reading experience. The long absence of Leigh’s story is a particular source of frustration and the third book feels slightly rushed as it jumps between the three narratives and attempts to bring each to its conclusion.
That complaint aside, there is much in Huracan to engage the reader. The dialogue is warm and lively, whether in Leigh’s local patois or the rough Scots brogue of Zachary and John, and there’s enough local colour to create an absorbing sense of place. But it is the imagery which lingers longest, from the great sugar estate, whose fluctuating levels of prosperity and decay provide a barometer of the different times, to the hurricanes of the title (“huracan” is the Taino word for storm), which dictate much of that prosperity or decay. However, it is the image of the gibbet which most haunts the novel. Still used to tragic effect in the time of Zachary and John Macaulay, by the end of the novel it is encountered by Leigh only in a museum. The exhibition, we are told, “drew a link between the artifacts of slavery and their place in modern life”. Huracan itself attempts a similar manoeuvre, exploring the links between Jamaica’s dark past and her less than perfect present, and the legacy that places on the people who call Jamaica ”home”.