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The Ventriloquist’s Tale, by Pauline Melville.

May 22, 2013

The Ventriloquist’s Tale, by Pauline Melville.  Bloomsbury USA (1999), Paperback, 368 pages.


 A superb and strange novel by an Indigenous woman about several generations of a family living on the southern savannas of Guyana.

Pauline Melville is a wonderful writer, partially descended from the Indigenous people of Guyana on the Caribbean coast of South America.  Her language is both delicate and precise and echoes her ancestors.  While her novel is not magical realism, mythical creations and actions pervade human actions, even when Roman Catholicism is practiced.   Her narrative is not strictly chronological, but it is always easy to follow.   Overall the book conveys a fatalistic, but not depressing mood.  Life happens with little discussion of motivation or impact.  When Rosa, an English character in the book, travels to Guyana, she is advised, “You are at the mercy of the random.  Don’t look for a pattern or try to impose one. Wait until something happens and then go with it.”  The novel itself seems to be rooted in that understanding.

Since I started blogging, I have read several books which I intensely loved without being able to write about coherently.  The Ventriloquist Tale is one of these.  Perhaps it is no coincidence that such books are ones written by and about Indigenous people like Thomas King and Helen Oyeyemi.  Even when their language seems conventional, readers seem to be asked to “understand” something outside the concepts that prevail in western thought.

The title, and the voice of the ventriloquist in the Prologue and Epilogue, establishes that this book is not entirely what it seems.  Although he never appears elsewhere in the text, the ventriloquist claims to narrate the whole novel.  He clearly establishes just how unreliable he is and how little respect he has for facts.

We, in this part of the world, have special veneration for the lie and all its consequences and ramifications.  We treat the lie seriously, as a form of horticulture, to be tended and nurtured, all its little tendrils to be encouraged.


In addition to the ventriloquist’s comments, the main text of the books takes place in two different time frames. The opening and closing sections, and some in between, take place loosely in the present, perhaps in late twentieth century.  With times bad on the savanna, Chofe McKinnon goes to Georgetown to find work, taking with him his aunt, Wifreda, who needs cataract surgery.  What happens in the city develops into a plot that connects to events on the savanna around the time of the 1919 eclipse of the sun.

 The major part of the novel concerns the McKinnon family during the early twentieth century.  Scotsman Alexander McKinnon had originally wandered into the region alone and married two sisters who lived there. He adapted to village traditions, while not quite understanding or respecting them.  He retained some of his interest in the world he had left, and life went smoothly.  His ranging prospered, and both wives had many children.

Then Danny and Beatrice, the oldest of the children by one of the wives, reached adolescence and engaged in a passionate incestuous love affair.  The various groups living on the savanna had myths about such behavior, linking it to an eclipse, to star patterns, and to the behavior of the tapirs, small pig-like mammals.  In the myths, the siblings assend to the night sky, and the McKinnon children follow their example by running away.  Although their mother is saddened by her children’s behavior, she is not appalled. “I know it is not good, what Danny and Beatrice are doing, but it is not the worst thing in the world.  It has happened before. It’s just fate.”  The person who is appalled is the Catholic missionary who tracks the couple down, convinces the boy of his guilt, and forces him to marry someone else. 

 In Melville’s writing, the events surrounding the incest are treated with calmness and acceptance.  Readers are never given any motivation for why it happens.   We understand events primarily through Beatrice’s perspective.   At first, she didn’t realize that the man who comes to her in the night is her brother.  When she grasps his identity, she seeks to continue their affair, never believing that what they are doing is in any way wrong.  The only agency she displays is in her angry revenge on the Catholic priest whose actions caused her relationship with her brother to end.

 In the blurb on the book Salman Rushdie commends Melville for “taking a cool look at any extremely steamy story,” but I disagree.  I did not find anything about the book “steamy,” except perhaps the weather. I found Melville is less “cool” than simply unwilling to condemn the incest.  For Melville, as for Beatrice, incest is not a critical turning point for the story.  It does not cause later catastrophes for the village.  Only Wifreda, Beatrice’s sister, blames her blindness on having seen the couple and reported them to others.  What matters is that, while their behavior is viewed as wrong, it can be understood within the context of the culture.  It is the priest, the outsider, who views it as earthshaking and evil.  Melville asks us to imagine a world which can absorb, if not approve, what the couple has done. 

 For me, Melville’s treatment of incest works because of her ability to write explicitly about sexuality with grace throughout the book.  I usually find writing about explicit sex to be crude and very unlike my own experience of sexual excitement and pleasure.   (I have scolded myself for being such a prude.)  But Melville’s depictions were different and I loved them.  I realized that the difference, perhaps, was that her attention centered on Beatrice’s sexuality, not David’s.  For Beatrice sexual pleasure is a continuum that began with self-eroticism long before David appeared in her hammock and it engages her whole body as Melville describes.

 But what is the novel primarily “about,” if not the incest?  Like many post-colonial novels, the intersection of different ways of life is one of this book’s themes, although it is a somewhat muted one.  The ventriloquist, and other characters, suggest that retaining traditional ways and isolating one’s people from the newcomers is best.  Unlike most post-colonial novels which deal with cultural conflict, the family on the savannas seem to have that option initially.   When the American oil company arrives, however, that possibility is tragically lost.  Perhaps it would be better to suggest that Melville understands the appeal of change—and the appeal of the English woman whom Chofy loves—but believes that such luxuries cannot release us from responsibilties to the people and land where we belong.

 Melville makes the land, and her detailed descriptions of it, central to her story.  Her writing is a very visual and sensual experience, not simply regarding sexuality, but in its descriptions of the places events occur.  Her word choice is not so much lyrical as precise, aptly suited for what she describes.  At times readers are placed in Georgetown, the capital, but more often they are immersed in the isolation of the savannas where the people whose stories she tells live.  Melville takes readers to unfamiliar places where behavior we would condemn elsewhere is possible.

 I highly recommend The Ventriloquist’s Tale to any readers willing to be moved by the unfamiliar and random world we inhabit.

  I still I have more questions than answers about this book, and I’d love to learn how others respond to it.




13 Comments leave one →
  1. May 22, 2013 11:09 am

    Sounds like an interesting, but challenging read. I don’t know how I would react to the randomness you describe. I tend to like things a bit more orderly! At any rate, I’ve got it my list as a possible book for Guyana.

    • May 24, 2013 9:15 am

      Thanks. Your comment prodded me to see what was really going on here. This book is written in a rather conventional, easy-to-read style, not like those by writers like Helen Oyeyemi, who I love but find difficult to read and write about.

      What is random is the way the Indigenous people understand life. Events just HAPPEN without planning or wanting or any motivation. That is why Melville is able to write so calmly about incest without probing into why the couple acted as they did without blaming them. The characters who plan and dream are the whites, the Scotsman who fathers the children, the female researcher who falls in love with an Indigenous man, the oil company men, and most of all the real villain of the book, the priest. The vengeance that Beatrice acts out on him is the only act of hers that displays any real motivation. This novel is powerful because we are so accustomed to novels delving into motivation.

      What Melville does here contrasts with the numerous novels by women of color that deal with westernization or immigration and thus with motivation and choices. Melville pushes us to understand just how culturally specific the idea that we have choices really is.

      • May 26, 2013 3:20 pm

        That is an excellent point! I’ve long been aware that “free will” is questionable at best-I think being chronically ill makes you realise how much is out of your control even if you’ve lived in a veil of privileged ignorance your whole life-but I see that assumption all over the place in (white, male) Western thought. I just finished Three Strong Women, which is a collection of three either long stories or short novellas, and it’s left me quite muddled. In part, I think, this is due to the character leaving much of the women’s motivations unexplained; they are certainly not what springs to mind when one thinks of ‘strong female characters.’ Anyway, I think you’re really on to something, and I’m just in awe of how much perception you bring to your reading. I’d love to be like that one day!

        You’re also making me want to reread this one, but sadly my library doesn’t have it so I’ll have to put in another ILL request.

  2. May 22, 2013 2:43 pm

    I adored this one too but didn’t manage to post about it. I loved reading your thoughts & agree re: Melville’s depiction of Beatrice’s sexuality. That Rushdie blurb is obnoxious, but then I’m in a horrible mood re: him having just finished Joseph Anton.

    Anyway, I’ll keep mulling things over (from what I remember! I read this back in 2011) and come back w more thoughts. 🙂

    • May 24, 2013 9:18 am

      I passed on Joseph Anton because I thought that’s how I’d respond. I’d be interested in your reaction to my latest thoughts on this book that biblioglobal pushed me into.

      • May 26, 2013 3:14 pm

        You are clearly wiser than me! I was so curious to see what it was like to have to change your life & identity out of the blue for eleven years, that I kept reading waiting for that part of the book. But it never arrived & now I’m rethinking all the Rushdie novels I’ve loved. :/ (Altho, Fury & his latest children’s book already had me annoyed, to put it mildly.)

  3. May 26, 2013 3:27 pm

    Also, I just added a couple more titles to your GWC directory! I’ve actually read 32 other books by GWC this year: that’s how far behind I am on blogging. I hope I get to posting about most of them, so that I can link to your directory! It’s a great resource & one I’ll be using in the future. 😀

    • May 28, 2013 9:16 am

      Eva, Back to VT. The idea that we can do anything if we really want to and try hard enough is one of my pet peeves, but it is strange for a novelist not to write about motivations, or rather not to “explain” major happenings. I liked it in VT and haven’t read TSW. It’s easy to see why it might not always work.

      • June 4, 2013 4:24 am

        That idea, the ‘boot straps’ mentality is a pet peeve of mine too.

        I’ve been thinking more on TSW, and I think it was so unexpectedly different from my expectations I just couldn’t place it until I’d had more time to reflect. Now, I think she did show motivations: there just wasn’t much cause/effect in which the women themselves were the cause. Instead, they were almost always reacting. I suspect just wasn’t in the right emotional or mental frame to meet the book the way I wanted to be met. But it did challenge me and make me think, which is certainly an indicator that it was worth reading!

        Anyway, I’ve put in an ILL request for The Ventriloquist’s Tale so I can revisit it. Mulling over the incest presentation, it occurs to me that really, in the catalogue of evils committed during colonialism, sibling incest (as opposed to parent/child, in which case hugely different power issues are at play) seems at most a footnote. And if we wanted to get all symbolic, sibling incest could come to represent bordering colonies, who in the past were closer to their European colonisers than each other, creating relationships despite their ‘parents’ strong discouragement. I don’t think Melville actually wrote it like that, just doing a bit of silly thought playing out loud here. 🙂

  4. May 28, 2013 10:40 am

    I bought this one a couple months ago but it’s still sitting on my shelf unread. I’ll have to move it closer to the top of my pile when I return from vacation.

    I have to admit I am not a big fan of a ton of sexual content in my books, but I will be sure to go into this keeping your thoughts in mind.

    • May 30, 2013 8:38 pm

      I am not usually a fan of reading about sex either, but this one seemed not so offensive to me. Let me know what you think.

  5. June 6, 2013 10:36 am

    Eva. Maybe I exaggerated how little cause and effect there was here–my daughters claim I am prone to exaggeration–but it was a little disorienting. The men in novel, especially the Anglo ones, were much more motivated. I don’t remember the names but the couple in the affair in the city just fell in and out of it.


  1. ‘The Ventriloquist’s Tale’ by Pauline Melville | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

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