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The Polished Hoe by Austin Clarke

The Polished Hoe (2002)

by Austin Clarke

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Over the space of one night a woman gives her confession to the policeman she’s known from childhood. Slowly the history of the island sugarcane plantation, slavery and intertwined, incestuous, ambiguous relationships come to light.

( )
  Phil-James | Mar 30, 2013 |
Clarke's book is a difficult one to read and is certainly not for those looking for a quick escape with a happy ending. The action of the story takes place over a single night, but it covers years of the life on a small West Indian island that had it's beginnings in slavery. Mary-G is a black woman born to as a fourth generation slave on this island. Like her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother before her she worked in the fields for a white overseer on a sugar cane plantation. She also follows them in another area-that of a white man's plaything. These women are all slaves so cannot question their lot, or say know to the unwelcome advances. Mary-G goes on like this for years as a casual sex toy for the white overseer. She is placed in a nice home, and she has three children by this man (only one lives), but she has been alienated from her fellow black friends by this show of favouritism. She is lonely and whiles the time away by raising her son and by reading. Then one day she has just had enough and she takes matters into her own hands. She exacts revenge for all of her anscestors. This book is about choices (limited or otherwise), and the results of those choices. The book is actually set in the time of the 30's and 40's (post-colonial because this island was a British colony). Clarke has created some powerful characters in this book. They are certainly not going to be forgotten by me for quite some time. This book is another worhty winner of the prestigious Giller prize. ( )
1 vote Romonko | Feb 17, 2011 |
OK, I made it to page 153, I don't care why she killed him anymore!!!! ( )
1 vote | jwilder | Nov 27, 2008 |
Before reading this novel I'd seen a number of other readers' comments about it being slow, boring, tedious, having no plot and so on. Which misses the point completely. This isn't a novel in which a plot is central, but about the course of an individual life, about relationships, history and, as it says on the back of the book, about the sacrifices which have to be made for survival.

The Polished Hoe, set in a lightly disguised Barbados, painstakingly teases apart the history of its central character, Mary-Mathilda, and the lifetime of exploitation and abuse she was put to by her mother in order to ensure her relative material prosperity. Indeed, one is hard-pressed to say whether May or Bellfeels, the Plantation manager, is more fundamentally guilty of the betrayal of Mary-Mathilda, whose voice, perceptions and experiences at the centre of Clarke's novel.

This is a novel without chapters, although it is divided into three lengthy sections, which means that there are few logical breaks in the narrative at which the reader may conveniently break. However I found that whenever I picked the book up again and started reading I always remembered exactly where in the speaker's reminiscences I'd laid it aside, and in a novel whose action is all reported at second hand and often from many years ago, it is a supreme achievement of the narrative and writing that each twist and digression is so memorable and vivid, offering firm anchors for the reader to latch onto.

Of all the novels I've read it reminds me most forcibly of Sandor Marai's Embers, also a novel in which two people sit through a night and talk about something which which has taken place and the circumstances surrounding it. In The Polished Hoe it is clear throughout the novel that something has happened earlier that evening but, although we have a fair idea fairly early on what that is, our surmise is not confirmed until the very end. In Embers what happened, or rather what didn't happen, took place more than half a lifetime ago and in that case it was an act which could have taken place but which didn't but which nevertheless tore two close friends irretrievably apart. In The Polished Hoe the reminiscences serve to draw back together the two childhood friends who had been separated by the different fates for which they were destined.

The Polished Hoe is shot through with a sustained, powerful yet subtle eroticism which weaves itself around and between Mary-Mathilda and Percy and as a piece of erotic writing it works very well indeed. On a more cynical note one could also see the events of the night in question as a wider seduction, or perhaps corruption is more appropriate, of Percy, the Crown-Sergeant, by Mary-Mathilda who, as it turns out, needs to compromise the policeman as much as she wishes to make up for lost time.

Not surprisingly, the history and legacy of slavery feature strongly in the novel in the form of the memories and testimony of Mary-Mathilda's grandmother and great grandmother as told by Mary-Mathilda by her mother, hence we appear to have four generations of oral history and testimony.

I am, however, not convinced that the history provided by Mary-Mathilda is reliable. We know from internal evidence in the novel that Mary-Mathilda was born c1897 and may therefore surmise that her mother was born c1870, her grandmother c1845 and her great-grandmother c1820. Mary-Mathilda's claim that her great-grandmother had come from somewhere in Africa seems somewhat unlikely since the slave trade was abolished throughout the Britsh Empire in 1807 (and the Royal Navy thereafter policed the Atlantic rigorously stamping out what trade remained taking slaves to the US) and slavery itself was outlawed throughout the Empire from 1834.

This is not to deny or denigrate the very real legacy of slavery in Barbados. Clearly the island's sugar economy had depended heavily on slavery in the past, but I think we are intended to see the poorly educated Mary-Mathilda as an unreliable narrator in this instance, which perhaps only serves to heighten the power of her account of her own experiences and life. ( )
3 vote MelmoththeLost | Dec 2, 2007 |
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That victory was hers,
and so was his passion; but the passionless books
did not contain smell, eyes, the long black arm, or his

knowledge that the island's beauty was in her looks

--Derek Walcott, from Omeros
For Gladys Irene Clarke-Luke
My Mother.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0060557621, Paperback)

When Mary-Mathilda, one of the most respected women of the island of Bimshire (also known as Barbados) calls the police to confess to a crime, the result is a shattering all-night vigil that brings together elements of the island's African past and the tragic legacy of colonialism in one epic sweep.

Set in the West Indies in the period following World War II, The Polished Hoe -- an Essence bestseller and a Washington Post Book World Most Worthy Book of 2003 -- unravels over the course of twenty-four hours but spans the collective experience of a society characterized by slavery.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:01:19 -0400)

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"When Mary-Mathilda, one of the most respected women on the colonized island of Bimshire (also known as Barbados), calls the police to confess to a crime, the result is a shattering all-night vigil. She claims the crime is against Mr. Belfeels, the powerful manager of the sugar plantation that dominates the villagers' lives and for whom she has worked for more than thirty years as a field laborer, kitchen help, and maid. She was also Mr. Belfeel's mistress, kept in good financial status in the Great House of the plantation, and the mother of his only son, Wilberforce, a successful doctor, who after living abroad returns to the island." "Set in the period following World War II, The Polished Hoe unravels over the course of twenty-four hours but spans the lifetime of one woman and the collective experience of a society characterized by slavery."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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