Cyril Lionel Robert James’ life was full of firsts. After migrating from Trinidad to Britain in 1932 he became cricket correspondent for the Manchester Guardian, an extraordinary achievement for a black man in Britain at the time. The fact that he was a good friend of Learie Constantine probably helped. He was an active Marxist, a fighter for West Indian independence, founded the International African Friends of Ethiopia when Ethiopia was under attack from Mussolini, and met Edith Sitwell, the Woolfs, Frieda Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Kwame Nkrumah and Trotsky. He wrote a history of the Haitian Revolution, a book about Nkrumah and a book about cricket ranked by The Observer in 2005 as one of the best books on sport ever written. Minty Alley (1936), his only novel, was the first novel by a black Caribbean writer to be published in Britain.
We meet Haynes, the central character, as a young man in Port of Spain at a low point in his life. His mother, who directed everything in his life, has died, and he’s unable to keep up the mortgage on their house unless he rents it out. He has a poorly-paid job in a bookshop, and he has the stalwart Ella, who runs the house. Haynes isn’t used to making decisions, and it’s up to Ella to tell him that he must rent a room somewhere and let the house. There’s a cheap room in a boarding house in Minty Alley, she says, but
It’s not nice…They are ordinary people, sir. Not your class of people.
“Class” is associated in a matter-of-fact manner with the darkness of the skin, “negroid” hair or indications of white ancestry, as here with Mrs Rouse, the owner of the house:
Her face was a smooth light-brown with a fine aquiline nose and well-cut firm lips. The strain of white ancestry responsible for the nose was not recent, for her hair was coarse and essentially negroid.
Mrs Rouse’s niece Maisie calls the Indian servant Philomen “coolie”, and the mysterious woman called “the nurse” is to all appearances white, but the tell-tale fingernails showed the coloured blood.
Haynes is impressed with the stately Mrs Rouse, and with pretty Maisie, and he moves in. Life in 2 Minty Alley is lived at a high pitch of melodrama. Haynes, who has never even put his arm round a girl’s waist, observes Mrs Rouse’s partner Benoit kissing and manhandling the maid and moving straight on to the nurse, and feels he has been pitchforked into the heart of the eternal triangle. It’s all quite thrilling. As the eternal triangle gets more and more complicated he finds everyone crying on his shoulder, wanting his advice, or in Maisie’s case, trying to get into bed with him. Maisie is a Puckish spirit, capricious, maliciously witty, capable of affection but an unromantic realist. She’s the perfect foil for the timid Haynes. Ella warns him he’s heading for trouble if he stays there, but for the first time in his life he cares about other people’s lives. He likes Mrs Rouse and she needs him. He recognises injustice and cruelty. And he likes being looked up to.
It reminded me of a comic opera, with sudden dramatic entrances and exits, clandestine affairs, unrequited love, noble and malignant characters, spells and potions. And like a good comic opera it’s beautifully shaped.
“Charm, vitality and humour”, says Bernardine Evaristo in her introduction. And that’s exactly what you’ll get.