Prospero's Daughter: A Novel

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9780345455352: Prospero's Daughter: A Novel

A spellbinding new novel from acclaimed author Elizabeth Nunez, Prospero’s Daughter is a brilliantly conceived retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest set on a lush Caribbean island during the height of tensions between the native population and British colonists. Addressing questions of race, class, and power, it is first and foremost the story of a boy and a girl who come of age and violate the ultimate taboo.

Cut off from the main island of Trinidad by a glistening green sea, Chacachacare has few inhabitants besides its colony of lepers and a British doctor who fled England with his three-year-old daughter, Virginia. An amoral genius, Peter Gardner had used his talents to unsavory ends, experimenting, often with fatal results, on unsuspecting patients. Blackmailed by his own brother, Peter ends up on the small island as England’s empire is starting to crumble.

On Chacachacare, Peter experiments chiefly on the wild Caribbean flora–and on the dark-skinned orphan Carlos, whose home he steals. Though Peter considers the boy no better than a savage, he nonetheless schools the child alongside his daughter. But as Carlos and Virginia grow up under the same roof, they become deeply and covertly attached to one another.

When Peter discovers the pair’s secret and accuses Carlos of a heinous crime, it is up to a brusque, insensitive English inspector to discover the truth. During his investigation, a disturbing picture begins to emerge as a monstrous secret is finally drawn into the light.

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About the Author:

Elizabeth Nunez is the author of Grace, Discretion (short-listed for the 2003 Hurston Wright Legacy Award for Fiction), Beyond the Limbo Silence, Bruised Hibiscus (winner of an American Book Award), and When Rocks Dance. She was born in Trinidad and emigrated to the United States after secondary school. Nunez is a CUNY Distinguished Professor of English at Medgar Evers College. She co-founded the National Black Writers Conference, is executive producer of the acclaimed television series Black Writers in America (nominated for a 2004 NY Emmy), and now chairs the PEN American Center Open Book committee. Named Author of the Year by the Go On Girl Book Club for 2002, Nunez is the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including fellowships at the Yaddo and MacDowell colonies and the Paden Institute, the YWCA Woman of Distinction Award, and the Sojourner Truth Award from the National Association of Black Business. She lives in Amityville, New York.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

One

He tell a lie if he say those two don’t love one another. I know them from when they was children. They do anything for one another. I know. I see them. I watch them. I tell you he love she and she love him back. They love one another. Bad. He never rape she. Mr. Prospero lie.

Signed Ariana, cook for Mr. Prospero, doctor

John Mumsford put down the paper he had been reading and sighed. He did not want the case, but the commissioner had assigned it to him. Murder and robbery were the kinds of crimes he preferred to investigate. Hard crimes, not soft crimes where the evidence of criminality is circumstantial. He preferred a dead body, a ransacked house, a vault blown open, jewels and money missing, tangible evidence of wrongdoing, not cases that depended on her word against his word.

In 1961 no one had figured out that dried sperm on a woman’s dress could be traced irrefutably to its source, at least no one in the police department in Trinidad. So as far as Mumsford was concerned, notwithstanding the fact that there could be some damage to the woman—torn clothing, scratches on the body, sometimes blood—these matters of rape were better handled as domestic quarrels, some of which could certainly end in murder, but in the absence of murder, not worth pursuing. In the end, there was always a persuasive argument to be made about a woman dressed provocatively, a woman alone, in the wrong place, in the dead of night. A woman flirting. A woman asking for it.

There was the case the week before, buried in The Guardian on the fifth page. A black woman from Laventille had filed a complaint with the police claiming that her fifteen-year-old daughter had been gang-raped in a nightclub in Port of Spain by three American sailors who had locked her in the restroom and stuffed her mouth with toilet paper. The reporter presented the facts as they were apparently given to him by the mother of the fifteen-year-old, but he went on to comment on the sad conditions of life for the residents of Laventille: “Houses, no hovels,” he wrote, “packed one on top of the other, garbage everywhere, children in rags, young people without hope, dependent on charity. It’s no wonder.”

That “no wonder” set off a deluge of letters to the newspaper. Four days later, on its second page, The Guardian printed three. “A wonder, what?” one person wrote. “A wonder that her mother wasn’t in the nightclub also selling her body? What do those women expect when they dress up in tight clothes and go to those clubs? Everybody knows the American sailors go there for cheap girls. She had it coming. How could her mother in good conscience call what happened to her daughter rape?”

That seemed to be the consensus of God-fearing people on the island. Soon witnesses surfaced who swore they had seen the girl the night before with the same three sailors.

Mumsford agreed with the consensus: The girl had asked for it. Yet for no other reason than that the hairs on the back of his neck stood up at the mere mention of Americans, he also believed that the sailors had taken advantage of her.

It was a matter of schadenfreude, of course. Mumsford was En- glish, and though he readily admitted his country had needed the Americans during the war, they irritated him. They were too boisterous, too happy-go-lucky, he thought. They waved dollar bills around as if they were useless pieces of paper; they laughed too loudly, got too friendly with the natives.

Trinidad’s black bourgeoisie didn’t approve of the Americans either, but they knew it was the English colonists who had given them this leave to swagger into town as if they owned the island. Which, indeed, they did, partially, that is, when the British gave them Chaguaramas, on the northwest coast of the island, not far from the capital, Port of Spain, to set down a naval base, and then Waller Field in central Trinidad, for the air force. It helped that the British explained that they needed the twenty battleships the Americans offered in exchange, but not enough to quell rancor in some who were making the American military bases a cause célèbre in their demands for independence.

Still, the simmering resentment of the American presence, shared by both the colonizers and the colonized, though for different reasons, was not enough to gain sympathy for the girl. How could it be rape when she was dressed like that, a fifteen-year-old girl with her bosom popping out of a tight red jersey top, and a skirt so short that, according to the nightclub owner, you could see her panties?

But, of course, the case the commissioner had assigned him was different. The woman in question, the victim, was English; the accused, the perpetrator, the brute, was a colored man.

The commissioner himself had come down to the station where Mumsford was posted and had spoken to him in private. “Mumsford,” he said, “you are the only one I can trust with this job.”

The job involved going to the scene of the crime, Chacachacare, a tiny, desolate island off the northwest coast of Trinidad, where the reputed rape had occurred, and taking the deposition of Dr. Peter Gardner, an Englishman, who had lodged the complaint on behalf of his fifteen-year-old daughter, Virginia.

“It is a delicate matter, you understand,” the commissioner said. “Not for a colored man’s ears or eyes.”

The commissioner was himself Trinidadian. He was born in Trinidad, as were his parents and grandparents and great-great- grandparents. He was what the people in Trinidad called a French Creole. He was white. That is, his skin was the color of what white people called white, though it was tanned a golden brown from generations in the sun. Local gossip had it, though, that none of the white people in Trinidad whose families went back so many generations had escaped the tar brush, and indeed the telltale signs of the tar brush were evident in the commissioner’s high cheekbones, his wide mouth and full lips, and in the curl that persisted in his thick brown hair. These features made him handsome, but skittish, too, for he had a deep-seated fear of being exposed, of finding himself in good company confronted by a man whose resemblance left no doubt that he was a relative with ancestors who had come from Africa.

The French had come in 1777 at the invitation of the king of Spain, who had neither the time nor the inclination to develop the island, one of the smallest of his “discoveries” in the New World. Preoccupied with the more alluring possibilities of gold in El Dorado on the South American continent, the king opened Trinidad to the French, who already had thriving plantations on the more northerly West Indian islands, thanks to slave labor from Africans they had captured on the west coast of Africa. The Spanish king thought he had struck a clever bargain, a cheap way to clear the bush in Trinidad while he was busy with weightier matters. The French brought thousands of African slaves to Trinidad from Martinique and Guadeloupe. Twenty years later, in 1797, the British seized Trinidad from the Spanish, but the French stayed on, claiming ownership of large plots of land, even after Emancipation in 1834.

Mumsford knew something of this history. He knew, too, that though the French Creoles on the island were linked to the English by the color of their skin, they were, nevertheless, culturally bonded to the Africans in Trinidad who had raised their children. More than once this knowledge had caused him to wonder whether, in a time of crisis, he could count on the commissioner’s loyalty. Would he side with the English, or would he suddenly be gripped by misguided patriotism and join forces with the black people on the island? He was always a little put off by the commissioner’s singsong Trinidadian English, though he had no quarrel with his grammar. On the question, however, of how to respond to Dr. Gardner’s allegation, the commissioner put him completely at ease.

“Only we,” the commissioner said, stressing the we and sending Mumsford a knowing look that sealed his trust, “can be depended upon with a matter of this delicacy. Don’t forget, Mumsford, that girl, Ariana, has already come up with her own lies and can make a mess of this for all of us.”

Us. The commissioner had a French-sounding last name, but Mumsford was satisfied that he was on his side.

Mumsford picked up the paper he had shoved aside and read Ariana’s statement again. He never rape her. She had written she, not her, but he could not get his tongue to say it. Dropping the d from the verb was bad enough.

“Attempted rape, not rape,” the commissioner had cautioned him. “In fact, Mumsford,” he said, “if you can avoid using that word at all, so much the better. We can’t have that stain on a white woman’s honor.”

And so it would have been—the nightmare of any red-blooded Englishman who had brought wife, daughters, sisters to these dark colonies—had that man, that savage, managed to do what no doubt had been his intention.

He had to remember to be careful then. It was not a rape, not even an attempted rape. There was no consummation. He must not give even the slightest suggestion that consummation could have been possible, that the purity of an English woman, that her unblemished flower, had been desecrated by a black man.

The woman, Ariana, had not put her letter in an envelope. She had glued together the ends of the paper with a paste she had made with flour and water. Mumsford was sure it was flour and water she had used, not store-bought glue. He was there when the commissioner slit open the letter. The dried dough, already cracked, crumbled in pieces, white dust scattering everywhere. He had leaned forward to clear the specks off the commissioner’s desk and was in mid-sentence, rebuking Ariana for her lack of consideration for others—“What with the desk now covered in her mess”—when the commissioner interrupted him. It was good she had sealed it, whatever she had used, the commissioner said. They needed to be discreet. Then he paused, scratched his head, and added, “Though there is no guarantee she has not told the boatman. People here talk.” He wagged his finger at Mumsford. No, they had to nip this in the bud. If they were not careful, the whole island would soon be repeating her version of what had happened on that godforsaken island. Soon they would be whispering that a white woman had fallen in love with a colored boy.

“ ‘I tell you he love she and she love him back.’ ” The commissioner read Ariana’s words aloud. He threw back his head and laughed bitterly. “A total fabrication,” he said. “How could it be otherwise?”

Mumsford did not need convincing. They love one another. Bad. That had to be a lie.

But it was not only Ariana’s reference to rape and the pack of lies she wrote in defense of the colored boy that irritated Mumsford this morning. It was also her presumption—what he called the carnival mentality of the islanders, their tendency to trivialize everything, to make a joke of the most serious of matters, turning them into calypsos and then playing out their stories in the streets, in broad daylight, on their two-day Carnival, dressed in their ragtag costumes. Yes, an En- glish doctor of high repute would be addressed as Mister, but he was sure Ariana did not know that, and certain that she knew that the doctor’s name was not Prospero, but Gardner. He was Dr. Peter Gardner—Gardner, a proper English name—not Mr. Prospero, doctor, as she had scrawled next to her name.

Ordinarily Mumsford would have left it at that, dismissed the name Ariana had given to Dr. Peter Gardner as some unkind sobriquet, loaded with innuendo, taken from one of those long-winded tales the calypso-rhyming, carnival-dancing, rum-drinking natives told endlessly. For Prospero had no particular significance to Mumsford, though he had guessed correctly that it was the name of a character in a story. What story (it was a play by Shakespeare, his last) he did not know. Mumsford was a civil servant who had worked his way through the ranks of Her Majesty’s police force. Like all English schoolboys he had read Charles Lamb, not the plays, and then not the story about Prospero. Nevertheless, he was on a special assignment and could leave nothing to chance. He had the honor of an Englishwoman to protect. So he made a note to himself to question Ariana. Question for Ariana, he wrote in his notebook. Why do you call Dr. Gardner Prospero?

He would have to speak to her separately, not in the presence of Dr. Gardner. That was the directive from the commissioner. Mumsford would have preferred otherwise. He wanted to expose her in front of Dr. Gardner for the liar she was, but when he argued his point, the commissioner stopped him. “I don’t think that would be wise,” he said.

For a brief moment, the tiniest sliver of a gap opened up between the Englishman and the French Creole. Would he, in the end, choose them over us? the Englishman wondered. For they could not always be depended upon to be grateful, even the white ones born here. The man stirring up trouble in the streets of Port of Spain with his call for independence was not grateful. And yet there were few on the island that England had done more for. England had educated him, England had paid his way to Oxford, but when he returned to Trinidad, the ungrateful wretch bit the hand that fed him: Independence now! Thousands were gathering behind him.

“You mean Eric Williams?” he asked the commissioner.

The commissioner ignored the question but he winked at him when he said, “We’ll have time sufficient to deal with the girl.”

Was the wink conspiratorial? Did he mean that England still had time in spite of the ravings of this troublemaking politician?

Mumsford tried again. “This is still a Crown Colony,” he said.

The commissioner slapped him on the back. “Let’s not cause the good doctor more grief, okay, Inspector?”

Mumsford had to be satisfied with his response, for the commissioner kept his hand firmly on the small of Mumsford’s back and didn’t remove it until he had walked the inspector out of his office.

But though Mumsford could not say with certainty whether or not the commissioner sided with the Crown or with the burgeoning movement for independence, on the matter of race the commissioner had made himself clear. He would protect a white woman from malicious insinuations. Mumsford was to go alone to Chacachacare without his usual police partner, who was a colored Trinidadian, and, therefore, as the commissioner pointed out, could not be trusted to be objective.

“He will take the side of the colored man against the English girl,” he said to Mumsford without the slightest trace of irony. “You’ll have to do this alone.”

Mumsford shut his notebook and reached for the official statement the commissioner had prepared for the press just in case Ariana had been indiscreet. He had placed the statement next to his brass desk lamp with the bottle-green glass shade, along with two sharpened pencils and his navy blue Parker fountain pen, which he had filled earlier that morning with black ink in preparation for the notes he would take later when he arrived in Chacachacare. Carefully, and reverentially, he unfolded the paper. It was the original copy. It bore Her Majesty’s seal and was typed in blue ink on expensive ivory linen stationery. In the official statement, the commissioner had avoided the word rape altogether. Instead, he had written attempted assault. He had not named the victim, referring to her only as “a young, innocent girl, a fresh flower, an English rose,” but he had identified the assailant: “Carlos Codrington, a colored man on the island of Chacachacare.”

Mumsford’s pencil...

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