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Note: Pauline Melville was WINNER of the 1997 Whitbread First Novel Award for this novel.

A unique look at the conflicts of ancient and modern ways

The Ventriloquist’s Tale opens and closes with addresses by a mysterious, third person ventriloquist/narrator, representing the old Amerindian culture of myth and magic of southern Guyana. This narrator indicates that he is not the hero of the book because, as he tells the reader, “Your heroes and heroines are slaves to time…. They’ve forgotten how to be playful and have no appetite for adventure.”

As the narrator unfolds the stories of the McKinnon family, half Scottish and half Wapisiana, we see illustrated in their lives the conflicts (and occasional melding) of their ancient ways with western science, religion, and exploitation. The narrator and, one understands, the author come down strongly on the side of the ancients, as the Amerindian characters enchant, amuse, and play with us while they show us their struggle with European intruders, including, at one point, Evelyn Waugh in search of inspiration.

We laugh with them, even as they face privation and hardship, and see with their eyes how ridiculously arrogant and ignorant the intruders are, because the intruders do not see that “everyday life…[is] an illusion behind which [lies] the unchanging reality of dream and myth.”

Despite the repellent subplot involving incest, we continue to like the characters, we are intrigued by the old beliefs that the eclipse of the sun by the moon is itself an incestuous act, and we understand how limiting it is to reduce eclipses and relationships solely to equations and to write research papers on the structural elements of myth. And we appreciate and rejoice in the brilliance of the Indians in “divining what you would like to hear and saying it, so you can never be really sure what we think….Ventriloquism at its zenith.” A fascinating and unusual novel.

Notes: The photo of Pauline Melville accompanies a fascinating story of her life here:  http://www.guardian.co.uk

Evelyn Waugh, in Guyana on a search for inspiration, may be seen here:  http://www.nndb.com

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