A Bit Creepy

A High Wind in Jamaica - Richard Hughes, Francine Prose

This is a weird and disturbing book. Too much so for me to be honest, which is what loses it a fifth star, because I can't quite give it that accolade even though I recognize the craft behind what Hughes did. It's a story about a group of children, but this is not children's fiction. The original title apparently is The Innocent Voyage, and is rather ironic. The novel has been compared to Lord of the Flies if that gives you a clue:

Being nearly four years old, she was certainly a child: and children are human (if one allows the term "human" in a wide sense): but she had not altogether ceased to be a baby: and babies are of course not human--they are animals, and have a very ancient and ramified culture, as cats have, and fishes, and even snakes: the same in kind as these, but much more complicated and vivid, since babies are, after all, one of the most developed species of the lower vertebrates.

It is true they look human--but not so human, to be quite fair, as many monkeys.

Subconsciously, too, everyone recognizes that they are animals--why else do people always laugh when a baby does some action resembling a human, as they would at a praying mantis? If the baby was only a less-developed man, there would be nothing funny in it, surely.

Possibly a case might be made that children are not human either: but I should not accept it. Agreed that their minds are not just more ignorant and stupider than ours, but differ in a kind of thinking (are mad, in fact): but one can, by an effort of will and imagination, think like a child, at least in a partial degree--and even if one's success is infinitesimal it invalidates the case: while one can no more think like a baby, in the smallest respect, than one can think like a bee.


And that's the fascination--but also the creepiness--of this book: the way it inhabits the child mind. This is utterly unsentimental in its depiction of children and as utterly convincing in its portrayal. Hughes is constantly underlining children's connection to nature--not in a sweet hummingbird and butterflies and bunny way, either. Think more savage and red in tooth and claw. And the book is well-written, with lines to savor and a sly humor that makes the at times macabre content all the more disturbing. There's no trace of the supernatural here, no vampires or werewolves, yet I'd be tempted to classify this as horror. There are pirates--but they're by no means as ruthless or callous as the children. And these aren't evil, psychotic children--just ordinary ones. The book is short, quick paced--and, I suspect, unforgettable, down to that last punch of a last line.