Picture, if you will, the tropical growth of a Caribbean island: where venomous snakes writhe among a multitude of indigenous fruits and flowers; where mothers make everything from guava jelly to poultices designed either to ward off evil spirits or attract good ones; where farm boys work hard to sustain their families but squander their wages on gambling. Then halt for a moment. See how a snake is used as a murder instrument. Witness how tasty fruit becomes a stand-in for the creeping decay of cancer. Find out exactly how the boy was tortured before he was shot dead.
The Whale House depicts just such a contrasting world: a collection of short stories portraying Trinidad in all its beauty and corruption. It is not unusual that the author, who lives in Port of Spain, and who is a part time lecturer at The University of the West Indies, should choose her own environment as her primary source of inspiration. Sharon Millar is the winner of the 2013 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, which is equally unsurprising if one considers the technical strength of her writing. Sentences are crafted either in long chains of syntactical elegance or else very economically. Depending on the story, one type of sentence is prevalent, with the other type being interspersed to control the pace. Another intriguing technique is the use of language and syntax that is symptomatic of Caribbean English: “’South boys work in oil and town boys work in banks […] but what happen to the village boys from the north?’” This technique is primarily used when Millar is voicing the opinions of a character who was not fortunate enough to receive an extensive education, but is also interspersed into third-person narration. Even then, it never seems as if the respective character is being ridiculed, because it is clear that they are well versed in the social microcosm of Trinidad. The only criticism one could level at the use of this technique is that it occasionally seems out of place, but such instances can be counted on the fingers of one hand.
Another strong point of Millar’s collection is her use of symbolism. “Making Guava Jelly” is arguably the most self-evident example: A young mother develops breast cancer and, in parallel, an obsession for cutting out breasts from playboy magazines, and an obsession for her guava tree. We learn that “all guavas have worms.” Like the strawberry motif in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, the image of overripe, worm-eaten fruit is used as a metaphor for personal decay. The young mother has come to accept her cancer as something as familiar as the guava tree in her garden, and it is only by chopping the tree down that the healing process can begin.
The symbolism used also adds to the voodoo-esque atmosphere. Most of the stories contain some kind of folkloric superstition, be that predicting the lottery by interpreting dreams, burying a corpse upside down to prevent it from exacting revenge from beyond the grave, or shielding a pregnant woman from evil spirits so her child will not be stillborn. This helps draw in the reader, to whom the scenery will seem highly familiar even though it is largely unknown, as if he or she were part of a tight-knit village community. This sense of community is enhanced by the fact that the short stories are loosely connected, as many characters are mentioned in other stories which do not revolve around them.
The Whale House is a well crafted portrait of a culture that is likely unfamiliar, as well as an exploration of personal and national identity, the uncanny yet familiar, and feminist themes that are forceful without ever being presumptuous. Overall, it is a well-balanced, clever collection which is pleasant to read, in no small part due to Millar’s expert ability to build-up atmosphere.