Monday, 12 May 2014

Beat Not the Bones by Charlotte Jay

published 1952






‘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.

10 comments:

  1. Moira - I've recently discovered Charlotte Jay myself. And I think you're right that her writing can be eerie and spooky. There's this real sense of menace that she manages to convey I think. You see it in Arms of Adonis, which takes place in Lebanon, too. I think she's under-rated.

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    1. I'm so glad you've read her too, and that you thought the same as me. And delighted to have a recommendation for the next book to read by her.

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  2. An interesting book, but as the barricades have now been erected on the CCL doors, I'll have to note it down for future reference.
    You didn't discuss the native garb in any detail, just thought I'd mention it!

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    1. Well now, I think 'A couple of them had cotton ramis on' is a detailed sentence, and obviously one I thought was self-explanatory. And then a mention of shirts as well...

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  3. When I saw the title, I knew I had heard of this, still not sure where, except I remember the mention of it winning the Edgar. I will seek it out sometime, maybe even check the book sale first, because there was a Soho edition of the book a good while ago. Or go for a used paper copy.

    I am now reading Skeleton in Search of a Cupboard by Ferrars. I love that title. I am enjoying it a lot.

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    1. I do recommend it Tracy, I was very impressed by it. And glad you are enjoying 'Skeleton in the Cupboard'. If it fails to please, you can always just look at the cover!

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  4. Moira, this sounds like a pretty intense book and almost real life. I think some of the most fascinating, and often unsettling, stories to come out of WWII, both fictional and real, have nothing to do with the war. Thanks for the review and for introducing me to one more new writer.

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    1. Intense is an excellent word for it Prashant, and I think it was ahead of its time in its look at the results of colonialism on places like Papua New Guinea.

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  5. From what I had read about this author's writing, I was afraid that it came off as siding with the colonialists and their racist attitudes towards the Indigenous peoples.

    However, in reading what you've quoted, it seems as if Jay is exposing and criticizing these arrogant attitudes. If that is so, perhaps I'll venture forth and try, although I hate reading about this oppression.

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    1. I know what you mean Kathy - and Charlotte Jay would too! She draws a horrifying picture, and I think was ahead of the time in her anti-colonialist attitude.

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