This Thing of Darkness

Reviewed by Jennifer Vanderbes
Sunday, March 19, 2006


A Novel

By Elizabeth Nunez

Ballantine. 316 pp. $24.95

Crime and punishment always make a good story; crime without punishment, even more titillating. But punishment without a crime? Now that's a good start.

In Prospero's Daughter , Elizabeth Nunez's retelling of "The Tempest" set in the 1960s, John Mumsford, a jaded British inspector, is called to investigate a rape on Chacachacare, a small island off Trinidad's coast that is home to a leper colony. Mumsford fears Trinidad's independence-minded natives, so when he learns that a biracial servant has assaulted a white girl, he resolves to carry out justice. Upon arriving he meets Dr. Peter Gardner, a British scientist mysteriously living in exile on the island with his daughter, Virginia. So far as Mumsford can determine, though, no sex act has occurred. The accused, Carlos Codrington, whom Mumsford finds penned and blistering in the sun, simply made the mistake of quoting "The Tempest" while declaring his love for Virginia to Dr. Gardner: "I had peopled else/This isle with Calibans."

While "The Tempest" and Nunez's novel share some interesting thematic elements -- both deal with racism, the dangers of art and the usurping of power -- their plots differ significantly. In "The Tempest," after his brother seizes his position as Duke of Milan, Prospero escapes to an uninhabited island with his daughter, Miranda. There they are served by the spirit Ariel, who works Prospero's magic, and Caliban, a deformed slave who claims the island as his own. When Prospero's brother sails nearby, Prospero conjures a tempest and uses the shipwreck to regain his title. Nunez, by contrast, imagines a romance developing over the years between daughter and servant, and thus Gardner unleashes his metaphorical tempest upon Carlos, not his usurping brother.

Gardner's vengeance, fueled by racism and a twisted paternalism (he vows, a bit too passionately, to protect his daughter's "virgin knot"), unfortunately contributes to one of the novel's shortcomings: He is a thief, racist, suspected murderer and rapist. He is just too villainous. The extremity of his evil makes him uninteresting, even unreal. Strangely, no one living under Gardner's roof recognizes the extent of his wickedness. When Virginia asks herself, after Carlos has gone missing and she hears her father drag a large bag across the house, " Was there a connection between the blue bruise on Father's forehead and the loud bang I heard when Carlos closed his door? ," it simply strains credibility.

Nunez describes Inspector Mumsford as uncomplicated: "His sense of morality left him no room for shades of good and evil. One was either good or one was evil." But it's precisely this polarized morality that at times compromises the novel itself: Gardner is evil, but Carlos and Virginia are good. Entirely good. It is chiefly Ariana, the female servant based on Shakespeare's Ariel, who meanders intriguingly through the novel as a morally ambiguous character. And the simplicity of her statements -- " They love one another. Bad. " -- often strikes a more resonant chord than Carlos's or Virginia's enlightened, intellectual explanations.

Although the characters at times lack complexity, the novel's setting is wonderfully drawn. In vivid prose, Nunez renders the landscape of Chacachacare: "the sweet perfume of overripe fruit and the pungent odor of fried fish and curry that came from the open stalls in front of the shops." And Nunez uses the Trinidad setting to great thematic effect: When Gardner arrives in Chacachacare, he usurps control of the house that Carlos's mother left to him, in effect mirroring the British colonization of Trinidad in 1797. Nunez brilliantly sets Carlos's growing ambitions to reclaim his house against the backdrop of the country's independence movement. These parallels, however, work well because they aren't explicitly stated.

The Virginia-Carlos love story is touching, and the novel moves at a strong pace, but in the final chapters Nunez undercuts the momentum by allowing her characters to spend too much time interpreting the narrative. When Virginia explains that her father believed "the life of a person born of English parents -- a white person -- was worth more than Carlos's life, the life of a black man, the life of a man in whose veins ran the blood of Africans," it feels as though Nunez has lost confidence in the reader. Such explanations bog down the novel, obscuring what might have been a more dramatic finale.

After all, what would become of all those scholars -- the Harold Blooms and Frank Kermodes and Nunez herself, who wrote her dissertation on "The Tempest" -- if Shakespeare had provided, in the midst of his plays, his own interpretation? If between scenes, Iago offered a sociological explanation of his evil deeds, or Lady Macbeth subjected her ambitions to psychoanalysis? Shakespeare's works, of course, have found immortality by asking fascinating questions, not by providing answers. And Prospero's Daughter is at its best when it sparks ideas, not when it explains them.

Jennifer Vanderbes is the author of the novel "Easter Island."

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