|In his novel Return to Arcadia, H. Nigel Thomas takes his reader on an intimate healing journey into Joshua Éclair’s psyche. Upon awakening in a Montreal hospital with partial amnesia, Joshua soon realizes that the road to recovery is actually backwards. He is placed in the ambiguous position of having to recover the very memories that are so painful his consciousness is trying to obliterate them. If we are the sum of everything we have experienced, and our bodies their mirrors, then Joshua is the indecipherable addition of scars upon scars that are found like a map on his back. And it is this unreadable chart that he must unlock in order to be healed, like an Oedipal riddle.Such un-resolvable spaces seem to run through the dynamics of Joshua’s life: he is the child of a rape of a black woman by a plantation-owner white man, an uncomfortable homosexual dealing with masochist tendencies, and the rich heir of a woman who raised him to despise himself… to name only a few of the irresolvable dichotomies he is forced to wrestle with.These moments of strain explode unto larger commentaries on social issues such as racism, colonialism, and sexual equality, the particular of Joshua’s life reaching to the communal through the telling of his personal story. Inscribing itself as an unavoidable tale of post-colonial Caribbean literature, Joshua Éclair ‘s story is an unprotected plunge into the realities of these atrocities. Return to Arcadia re-affirms the need to continue the unveiling of historical injustices of plantation exploitation and adds to the complexity of these issues by having as a protagonist a man of mixed blood, allowing the difficulties of identity and self-definition to be pertinently addressed. These topics are a tightrope to walk on for any author and Thomas proves a skilful acrobat.A compellingly honest, thorough, and difficult descent to the depths of the most painful of memories leads Joshua back to the place where it all began, Arcadia, the name of the plantation where he grew up on the fictitious Caribbean Island of Isabella. There, an encounter with a local healer and a spiritual experience on a mountaintop allow him to mend his past. Drawing from a mixture of dream interpretations and animist worldviews, Joshua restores and reconstructs a sense of self that finally allows him to unite all of his seemingly irreconcilable parts.Staying clear of sentimentality, Thomas privileges a clear, insightful, precise tone, managing to infuse every heart-rending moment with warmth. The sharpness of the topics, and the difficulty of the material are coated in a gentleness from the narrator, and give the impression that the text is being offered to the reader, generously given, a thoughtfulness that is quite refreshing.— Catherine Turgeon-Gouin
|Can you go home again?H Nigel Thomas’s new novel opens with a middle-aged man regaining consciousness in Montreal’s Douglas Psychiatric Hospital, only to find that he’s missing several of his toes and all of his memory. In his fractured state, he spews fourth to the doctors attending him an angry and erratic verbal collage of philosophical, literary, and cross-cultural references. The immediate effect is to place the reader on as unsteady a ground as the protagonist: will the whole book, we dread, proceed as nonsensically? But as the narrative unfolds and as the patient’s voice becomes more disciplined, the shards of his life reassemble and his madness takes on meaning. “We can’t control what history does,” he rants shortly after awakening,. . . we eat its fruits—are its fruits—are the spokes in its wheel; we nurse its wounds, wear its crutches, repeat its lies, enact its horrors.So it emerges that the man, Joshua Éclair, is a transplant from the fictional Caribbean island of Isabella, the heir to a large plantation and a wealth of guilt. His current bout of amnesia is but the latest in a chain of breakdowns that have plagued him since his teen years. It becomes his doctor’s goal to help Joshua uncover the past events that contribute to his purgatory. Why does he have no family or friends to visit him in hospital? What is the source of the scars etched across his back? Thomas crafts a mystery in which the crime is the absence of identity and the victim is not wholly innocent.As the title suggests, the answers rest in arcadia, the estate where Joshua was raised by its owner’s American widow. A woman who fancies herself enlightened on the subject of race compared to her white Isabellan contemporaries, Averill Éclair “adopts” the young Joshua from one of her black labourers. His birth mother is only too relieved to see the boy go, for his light skin is a painful reminder of the circumstances of his conception. Averill’s philanthropic pose is undermined, however, by her practice of denying Joshua contact with his sister, Bita, or any other manifestations of his black heritage, instead secluding him in privilege, under the lascivious gaze of her pedophiliac preacher cousin. His schoolmates shun Joshua’s “homosexual” behaviour, and he cannot even find respite in the company of the servants who help raise him, since class and their belief that “mixed-colour children” are “worse than the white ones, ’cause them shame o’ what they be” hover constantly in the air. Years later, he reflects on how the lack of supportive nuclear or extended family informs his present hermit lifestyle:Doctor, it seems that from the time I was born, everyone saw me as plasticene they could mould and remould . . . like plasticene each moulding left me a little more soiled . . . I no longer let soiling hands reach into me.For Thomas, it is not enough to uncover the social intolerances shaping his character’s misery. Joshua must gain an awareness first of how dirty his own hands are, then of how he can go about cleaning them. The moments of peace he finds in the natural world—whether on Montreal’s Mount Royal or in the “sooty light and crashing waves” of Isabella’s shores—are not sufficient to heal him. Like everyone, he craves the company of like-minded others. Thomas offers a fine story of forgiveness, self-actualization, and belonging.—Andrea Belcham
|Thomas returns to Isabella Life on fictional Caribbean island based on author’s homeland of St. Vincent RETURN TO ARCADIA, by H. Nigel Thomas, is a Caribbean-Canadian novel that deals with racial and class identities, homosexuality and psychological trauma. The story’s setting is divided among Montreal, the fictional Caribbean island of Isabella, and to lesser extents London, Madrid and Paris.The land and people of Isabella, which is also a setting in Thomas’s other two novels, form sharp images in the reader’s mind. Subjective description is perhaps Thomas’s forte as a writer. For instance, he is very convincing in capturing the way the protagonist would recall scenes from childhood. The author also has a particular knack for describing faces and often for capturing speech patterns, in major and minor characters alike.Thomas, in an interview, says that Return to Arcadia is intended to explore a hitherto unwritten dimension of Isabella Island’s society. “I am looking at what constitutes mental illness and how one gets out of it. Also, (the novel) focuses on a group of characters or a segment of Caribbean society that so far I hadn’t focused on: the powerful plantocrats (plantation-owning class), who controlled about 90 per cent of the arable land in St. Vincent.”Thomas’s native St. Vincent, he adds, is the primary inspiration for Isabella Island.Return to Arcadia’s protagonist, Joshua, is an amnesiac who awakes in the psychiatric ward of Douglas Hospital, Montreal. Throughout the novel, he recalls his past — or sometimes hallucinates about it — as he struggles to reach a psychological resolution. Ultimately, with the aid of modern medicine and ancestral spirituality, he finds stability and attempts to reintegrate into his maternal culture.The author’s interest in psychology is more than passing. Thomas studied psychiatric nursing in 1970 and then for six years he worked in Douglas Hospital. During his last year, he worked with child patients, in whom he saw the devastating formative effects that psychological trauma can have.”I certainly believe,” Thomas reflects, “that people are shaped by the forces that acted upon them, in much the same way as water on limestone. . . . The challenge, then, becomes how to live with the effects of that shaping.”Not surprisingly, then, the specifics of Joshua’s life and mental illness seem to reflect a deterministic premise. The narrative suggests that the character’s unresolved formative experiences explain, if not dictate, his behaviour. For instance, Joshua discovers he is a masochist, a condition which (in this literary representation) is analogous to feelings of guilt and blame that he has harboured since youth. As soon as Joshua starts to unburden himself of this guilt and blame, he ceases to engage in masochism. Similarly, Joshua is sexually exploited as a young teenager and as an adult he becomes an exploiter, buying sadomasochistic sex. However, he stops this behaviour too once he forgives himself and others for the past.For readers who hold a less rationalistic view of human experience and behaviour or just less faith in psychiatric therapy, some of Joshua’s transformations might be hard to believe.Even before struggling with his sexuality, Joshua has endured another psychological dilemma of concealed paternity, attempted infanticide, interracial adoption, sibling separation and parasitic wealth. Without revealing further plot details, it is safe to say that Joshua’s early years are laden with even more traumas and reversals than the average fictional childhood.
Thomas, who taught modern American literature at Laval, says that his novel’s structure owes a debt to American authors such as William Faulkner, Toni Morrison and Toni Cade Bambara. Like these novelists, Thomas makes extensive use of flashbacks and stream-of-consciousness narration. Another commonality between Return to Arcadia and the works of Faulkner and Morrison is an apparent fascination with portraying larger-than-life, dysfunctional families.
Like Faulkner, Thomas is also fascinated with Shakespearean symbolism. Joshua and his stream-of-consciousness narrator allude several times to the characters Prospero (the sorcerer) and Caliban (Prospero’s monstrous slave) from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. “The Tempest is really about colonization,” says Thomas, echoing an idea that dates back at least as far as 1968, when French author Aimé Césaire wrote Une Tempête, a post-colonial reconstruction of Shakespeare’s play.
Return to Arcadia, then, bundles and reworks quite a lot of older concepts and motifs from established psychology and literature. The downside of this approach is that Joshua sometimes seems more like a funnel for ideas than a fleshed-out individual who attempts to act upon them. Joshua’s thoughts of redemption are many, yet his redeeming actions are few, even when he faces no apparent obstacle.
For instance, as a young man, Joshua inherits a fortune and makes a note to help impoverished acquaintances from his past. For almost 30 years, he neglects to do so. Then, he seems surprised to find that his surviving acquaintances are still impoverished.
The scenario is a hard one, for author and reader alike. What would Hamlet do if he outlived his major antagonists (his major benefactors, too) and received practically unlimited material means? Sink into a contemplative void, before eventually emerging to seek a simpler life in friendship with the common Dane?
Joshua does seek such an answer, even though most of Isabellan society violently reviles homosexuality and thus forces him to be discrete. Can such an environment be conducive to Joshua’s psychological convalescence? Common ancestry seems to trump cosmopolitan tolerance in Thomas’s construction of the character’s needs.
“Like my protagonist,” Thomas says, “I don’t think there is a perfect society anywhere. Societies more or less respond to our needs and there will always be those needs that our societies will not fully cater to but it comes as part of the territory.”
Return to Arcadia comes as part of a territory too. Thomas’s previous two novels, Spirits in the Dark and Behind the Face of Winter, follow the same patterns of recollection and self-reconciliation. They also address psychological questions about ancestry and sexuality. Long years of study at McGill precede a self-confrontation for both Joshua and the protagonist of Behind the Face of Winter. A grassroots spiritual guide plays an important role in the conclusions of both Return to Arcadia and Spirits in the Dark.
Thomas has a unique descriptive style and, in the form of Isabella Island, an elaborate, compelling setting and social context for his novels. He does, however, inherit a lot of baggage in terms of structure and concepts. By the end of Return to Arcadia, whether the reader finds the protagonist’s behaviour convincing hinges on acceptance or rejection of a very specific set of psychoanalytical premises — largely, the ones set forth by Joshua’s doctors. Regardless, some of this novel’s influences and its author’s talents render it distinct within the realm of Caribbean-Canadian literature, except for parallels with Thomas’s previous work.
— Joseph Howse