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As a native of Barbados, who grew up on the island until the age of eighteen, I feel I bring a different perspective to the experience of reading In the Castle of My Skin by George Lamming. The setting is not only familiar, but the dialect and the way of thinking ingrained in the various characters are all recognizable. Perhaps, I would even dare to say that they are part of me at a very fundamental level. In the Castle of My Skin is undeniably a very Barbadian book in countless ways that are almost indescribable. For instance, the description of the regimented life and assembly at the Village School, is inimical of the government (public) high school that I attended. As is the inherent intense rivalry that Barbadians have with Trinidad (where my mother comes from incidentally). It is reflected in the warnings that George’s mother gives him on the night before he leaves the island to travel to Trinidad. It is also captured in the connection the characters feel to the land and sea in Little England (aka Barbados). The story is tragic, yet it reflects the feudal post-slavery, colonial conditions that existed in Barbados, in which many Black Barbadians were poor and disenfranchised. Creighton’s Village, the main setting for the story, is a fictional example of a typical semi-rural village on the island, owned by a white landlord and inhabited by poor Black tenants.

What I enjoyed most about this novel is how Lamming cleverly wove all the strands of history that define Barbados into the narrative. From slavery, to the building of the Panama Canal (which depleted the island of one quarter of it’s population, roughly 45 000 people between 1904-1916), to the 1937 riots, he captured all of the seminal events that have shaped the Barbadian psyche. At the same time, there were some aspects of the story that I found less enjoyable. The use of Barbadian or Bajan dialect in the dialogue between characters was at times jarring. Partly this was due to the fact that I am familiar with the dialect and it felt ‘watered down’ and inauthentic, since Lamming infused heavy doses of ‘proper’ English (quite logically) since he wanted to make it more readable to non-dialect speakers. But to me it felt as if people would never talk like this in reality. Moreover, I had the impression in several parts of the story that non-Barbadian readers might not fully grasp certain subtle, but important aspects of the story. For example, the description of the houses that people lived in was insufficient in my view to explain why they were movable. This was in fact due to their inherent design as ‘chattel’ houses (which Lamming did not delve into). Chattel means property, an these houses aka shacks were essentially constructed from planks of wood mounted on stilts supported by stones, which made them effectively movable. Other aspects of the story also miss relevant details. For example, his reference to the grapes at the seaside and to cuckoo and flying fish (the national dish of Barbados). Lamming in fact means sea grape (Coccoloba uvifera) which is technically not a grape species. Similarly, the description of cuckoo initially is quite vague, but later Lamming does a good job of explaining how it is prepared and how it tastes. Overall, In the Castle of My Skin is an enjoyable read which I would recommend to everyone, and especially to people who are part of the Barbadian diaspora. I’m immensely proud that this novel showcases Barbados and Barbadian culture.

** I strongly advise reading the Author’s Introduction at the start of the book before diving into it.

*Suggested further reading:
Chattel houses: https://barbados.org/chattel.htm
Barbados’ link to the construction of the Panama canal: https://picturingblackhistory.org/bla…
1937 riots in Barbados: https://www.caribbeannationalweekly.c…
Sea grape:https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coccolo…
Cuckoo and flying fish: https://www.greatbritishchefs.com/rec…

Have you read any of In the Castle of My Skin or any of George Lamming’s other works? What do you find most enjoyable about his writing? Thanks as always for stopping by! Please feel free to share your thoughts or reactions in a comment below. Also, if you would like to receive more updates about my writing please consider joining my newsletter mailing list by subscribing below.

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