Barry’s Drowned Forest a ‘must read’
Written in lucid and silken prose, Bermudian author Angela Barry’s The Drowned Forest is, in the words of Jacob Ross, the associate editor of fiction at Peepal Tree Press, a foundational text.
In the Anglophone Americas, it takes its place in the tradition of George Lamming’s In the Castle of My Skin in the Caribbean and Edward P Jones’ The Known World in the African American tradition. Each novel reaches back into a past. Each interrogates the roots of a national history in order to examine and, perhaps, explain the phenomenon of the present. As such the idea of the present being rooted in the past as the novel’s dominant theme, was inspired, according to Barry, by Teddy Tucker’s underwater discovery of a fossilised trunk of a cedar tree with its roots embedded in the Bermuda seamount. Indeed, the past is always present and prologue.
In its focus exclusively on Bermuda in the 21st century, The Drowned Forest represents a shift in emphasis from the African diaspora in her earlier fiction, Endangered Species, a collection of short stories, and Gorée: Point of Departure. Such a shift not only renders The Drowned Forest a gift to Bermuda but also continues to emphasise that Bermuda in all of its complexities is much more than a mere tourist paradise. The novel does not shrink from the problems of Bermudian life such as social break down and the particular problems with Bermudian youth which informs the kernel of the plot.
The story, however, is much larger than its obvious focus on a troubled youth. For this reason, a simple linear plot structure would not have adequately captured the importance of the novel as a purveyor of both a uniquely Bermudian story and one that has larger global implications for all societies grounded in colonialism and in the hospitality industry.
The novel turns on point of view. We meet the primary characters who are drawn together initially (three directly and one indirectly) through court-mandated responsibility for the protagonist, Genesis, a juvenile offender. Each of these four major characters represents a distinct segment of Bermudian society: Nina from the Black middle class; Lizzie from the Portuguese socially and economically ascendant class; Tess a descendant of the powerful White oligarchy; and Hugh, a Welsh expatriate. These characters are each forced to find a way to surmount the inevitable clashes resulting from the strictures of their particular backgrounds, values, and world views to assist Genesis through her difficulties. At the same time, Barry introduces a peripheral, nonetheless important set of minor lower working class and dispossessed characters whose presence is filtered through the perceptions of the primary characters. Without these peripheral figures, however, the world of the novel would be incoherent and inauthentic.
The success of Barry’s use of point of view is inextricably bound by the effectiveness of her characterisations. The novel’s characters are very human and recognisable. They are well-defined, well-rounded, and given to both strengths and weaknesses. Barry, however, portrays them all with tenderness and care, taking the time to show the reader that each has a back narrative that she or he, like Bermuda itself, must face in order to begin to move into a healthy future. The characters must probe within themselves deep seminal questions of personal identity and purpose. While the female “guardians”, Nina, Lizzie, and Tess, primarily charged with the care and rehabilitation of Genesis, must wrestle with these considerations, they can find the uncomfortable answers and come to terms with their own pasts and individual identities through their genuine commitment to their healthy growth and development. The same is also true of Hugh as he faces his Welsh origins and his place in Bermuda as an expatriate.
While the novel lays bare many points of despair in the political, economic, and psychosocial dynamic of Bermudian life and history, Barry as storyteller does not abandon the reader in those moments. The novel also contains moments of humour as well as wonderful references to food, flora, fauna, and distinctive cultural moments such as Gombey dancing during the Boxing Day celebration and Cup Match. We also see a high value placed on religion and spirituality as well as ancestral memory as keys to healing. Similarly, when the novel reaches a disturbingly high level of tragedy, she also provides us with a vision of hope even if there are no immediate guarantees.
The Drowned Forest is a “must read”. Bermudians can find themselves and at least a variation of their individual family stories somewhere in this novel. The book nudges us out of rugged Western individualism. It instructs us to know ourselves and our past, to remediate and atone as far as possible for its ills, and thus begin the journey to a spiritually and psychologically sound future. It ends, therefore, in the spirit of Ubuntu, the South African concept that stresses community and interdependence. It reinforces the idea that “I am because we are; we are because I am”. This for Bermuda in the 21st century can be the only way forward.
Dr Carol Patricia Marsh-Lockett (Pat Marsh) is Bermudian. After completing her elementary and secondary education at West End Primary School and the Berkeley Institute, she earned the Bachelor of Arts, Master of Arts, and Doctor of Philosophy degrees in English at Howard University in Washington, DC. She retired as an associate professor of English from Georgia State University in Atlanta, Georgia where her teaching and publication areas were English literature, African American literature, Caribbean literature, and postcolonial literature.