‘Eola’s a river village. You know the sort of thing … twenty or thirty grass huts built on the bank of the river. Big long house in the middle of the place, for the men – no women allowed – you know. Where they do all their hocus-pocus nonsense. Pretty wild people. Only half a dozen of them had ever seen a white man before. One of them had been down to Kairipi. They get a bit of trade stuff through from Maiola. A couple of them had cotton ramis on, and they had some tins of bully beef.’
‘Were they at all hostile?’ asked Warwick.
Jobe became vague. This was a subject that he did not wish to go into. These government fellows were always worrying whether the locals were hostile. Wouldn’t even let you carry a gun. A man would be a fool to go into the jungle without a gun, but it might frighten the poor bloody natives. ‘Bit nervy at first, you know,’ he said airily. ‘Only natural. Not used to white men. Soon got used to me, though. Got quite fond of me after a bit, you might say.'
observations: The Guardian newspaper recently posed the question ‘which books do you think are under-rated?’, and readers in their droves suggested the little-known books they liked to press on friends. One of those mentioned was this book, first published in 1952 and now available for Kindle. Charlotte Jay was an Australian writer who produced a number of novels of different kinds. This one was successful in its day, and – according to a rather surly afterword* by two editors who have republished it as a crime classic – ‘received the inaugural Edgar Allan Poe award from the Mystery Writers’ Association of America and at the time was considered to be an accomplished novelty in mystery/suspense writing.’
It’s hard to think who could read it and think of it merely as a novelty. It is set in post-WW2 Papua New Guinea, which, yes, is indeed very different. But the book is eerie, spooky and absolutely compelling. Young Stella Warwick comes out there as part of the British/Australian colonial administration. But she is really trying to find out what happened to her much older husband, who was a senior anthropologist there and who is said to have committed suicide. She doesn’t believe that, and wants to find out the truth. In the end she goes on a terrifying journey into the interior, to the village described in the scene above (which comes at the beginning of the book and, it should be said, features a character who is clearly intended to be loathsome as well as racist).
The story of what really happened is immensely sad, and shocking, and memorable, and Jay obviously had a lot to say about the way the colonizers ruled Papua New Guinea. As one character puts it:
[We are] giving them money they can’t spend, stopping their festivals, telling them they can’t dance. [We are] giving them shirts that get wet and give them pneumonia or teaching them to value valueless things. We do it all day, not only here but all over the world. We teach them to gamble and drink. We give them tools and spoil their craftsmanship. We take away their capacity for happiness.It is an astonishing book, and should indeed be better known. Highly recommended.
*My issue with the afterword is twofold. a) friendly and generous contemporary praise of the book is described, pointlessly, as patronizing and bland b) Charlotte Jay, for whatever reason, talked down her own work and described this book as ‘only an adventure story’: the editors strongly criticize others for taking at her word, which seems unreasonable. They also object to praise of the authenticity of the setting, with the rather childish claim that it wasn’t authentic, it was well-imagined.
The pictures, of a village in Papua New Guinea, are from the UK Colonial Office archives.