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Minor miseries, major revelations

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The ebb and flow of life continues unabated despite the minor miseries or major revelations that mark a human existence. This message is threaded, with varying degrees of subtlety and persistence, throughout all the stories of Lawrence Scott’s new collection, Leaving by Plane Swimming back Underwater (Papillote Press, 2015). 

The title of the overall work indicates a sea change, a reconnaissance of one’s individual fortunes, set against the backdrop of a full and examined history. Scott brings the narratives of his characters’ personal and collective histories to the page in ways that demonstrate a sensitive affinity to the rhythms of natural speech, and the merciful indifference of nature itself. 

The splendour and fearsome majesty of the natural world is never far from the main setting of these stories. Scott may occasionally turn his protagonists inward, facing the stifling clamour of busy main streets in San Fernando or Port-of-Spain. Despite this, the authorial gaze reminds the reader frequently of the presence of maritime winds, the slope of mountains, and the overall position of Trinidad in the archipelagic chain. 

Nor do the stories restrict themselves to Trinidad, though the bulk of them are set here. In Ash on Guavas, a young Montserratian girl sees the wonder and poetic scope of the Caribbean through her schoolteacher’s geography lesson: “See the rosary of islands, the splintered arc. See each mountain peak; an indigo, green serration which runs along the rum of the new world basin.” It is to these cartographic instructions that the girl cleaves when an unforeseen natural calamity shakes the physical and emotional foundations of her known world.

In other stories, Scott presents Nature as implacable, unchanging except in its series of revolutions and sovereign in its dominion over man, whether portrayed in a nurturing or destructive light. 

Pierre and Guillaume, boys burgeoning into their uncertain sexuality in the multiple-perspective narrative of Tales Told Under the San Fernando Hill, conduct their innocuous but not innocent games in an Edenic garden of a great house. They register the changes in their bodies and hearts while “the season was just itself changing its dress… and the pouis and immortelles had dropped their dresses to the ground where the yellow and orange petals ringed the trees.” 

Resplendent yet impartial, the garden witnesses multiple desires unfolding and converging beneath its trees and shady walks. Scott frames the encounters in this story to create a dichotomy between the flesh’s biddable weakness and a natural atmosphere that keeps vigil silently. 

This duality, between the natural world and man’s thwarted, complicated desire within it, is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the collection’s title story, Leaving by Plane Swimming back Underwater. A first person reminiscence of a young man’s life, steeped deep in Roman Catholic religious training, it reflects lusts that are both spiritual and carnal, calling up parallels between opposite states of ardour. 

The narrator finds succour in the warmth of the wilderness: “I became a builder of shrines, grottos in the mountains, imitating Lourdes and Fatima and my intense wish was that if I knelt long enough at these shrines alone in the forest, another vision would come, something more lasting.” 

Though he toys with the idea of his own apostasy, it is the very wilderness he clings to that defeats him, at the story’s close, and solidifies his acceptance of a monastic and contemplative fate. 

The danger of a collection that bears so many nuanced interrogations of a spiritual life, a sojourner’s regrets and a region’s assembled guilt is that much of it gets lost in the quietness of its approach. The work is well written, but not boldly declarative: while this will stymie many readers attuned to more obvious satirical and theatrical flourishes, it will endear those avoiding high drama in their tellings. Even if the country is a pantomime, Scott’s prose suggests, the recounting of its travesties can still be enforced with a certain sleight of hand. 

One or two of the stories succumb to a discordant sentimentality, but throughout the collection, the narratives remain focused, delivering deep cuts with great skill. Leaving by Plane Swimming back Underwater is, in this way, surgically precise, delivering grief, grace and redemption to fiction’s operating table.


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