A Marriage Tie That Binds
NOT yet so well known in the United States, the Guyanese-born writer Roy Heath has achieved considerable recognition in Britain, where two of his eight novels were nominated for major prizes, and a third ("The Murderer," published in the US last year) won the Guardian Fiction Prize. Heath, who is also a teacher and an attorney, emigrated to England at the age of 24.
"From the Heat of the Day," the first novel in a family trilogy, was published in Britain in 1979. The setting is Georgetown, British Guiana, 1922 - several decades before the country gained its independence and its current name, Guyana. Sonny Armstrong, a vigorous young man from the wrong side of the tracks, is paying court to Gladys Davis, the sheltered daughter of one of the town's more prosperous families. The Davises are less than delighted.
But without recourse to a midnight elopement or other melodramatic measures, the wedding occurs. Almost immediately, with the unsparing speed and directness that give this narrative the terse power of unvarnished truth, the heart of the problem is laid bare: This marriage is a mistake. Sonny Armstrong wants to love his wife and provide a happy home for his family, but something in him can't stop berating and abusing her, making him say and do the very things he doesn't want to. As for Gladys, the "better
[she] got to know her husband the more she missed the repressive days of her youth... ."
The couple takes up residence in the rural village of Agricola, where Gladys finds herself deprived not only of a piano and fine furniture, but even of running water and indoor plumbing. Yet, she adjusts uncomplainingly, and bears two children, a girl and a boy. Emotionally abandoned by her husband, alienated from her sisters and parents, Gladys turns for companionship to one of the two young servant girls who've been taken on to help her run the house.
In her loneliness and confusion, she lurches back and forth from sisterly intimacy to chilly formality, unwittingly sowing discontent and rivalry between the two girls. Meanwhile, the Armstrong children are growing up, and their father, once a young man with a promising future, has become a surly, unhappy civil servant worried about losing a dull job he disdains and resentful of the need to support a wife and children.
The course of the Armstrongs' marriage confounds expectations: not only Gladys's vague longing for passion and romance and Sonny's dream of upward mobility, but even the reader's expectations as to how their story might develop. Where it could have been expected that this couple would eventually be torn apart by their deep incompatibility, or that they'd recognize and work out their differences, or even achieve the sort of tempestuous relationship in which mutual support alternates with mutual opposition , what happens is none of the above. Instead of developing or unfolding, this ill-fated pair flounders in a maze of misunderstanding.
Neither understands the situation that entraps them, neither can see a way to break the pattern of hurt. Sonny is abashed by how badly he treats his wife, but cannot seem to stop: "At times I wish for something to happen so that I can show my wife how much I care for her..." he confides to his friend, a schoolteacher named Doc. "And yet I treat her worse than a dog...." Poor Gladys's position is still more lamentable: Her husband criticizes her as the spoiled product of an over-refined upbringing, but o f course married her for that very reason. He constantly complains that she is too submissive, but "any display of independence or hostility" from her puts him "into an indescribable fury."
Compounding their problems are the ever-present difficulties of living - and trying to make a living - in an impoverished land whose economy depends on a single export crop. The fall of sugar prices midway through the book undermines what little job security and self-respect Sonny has. Yet before the novel ends, each has gained some measure of hard-won insight into the nature of the tie that binds them.
The strength of this novel lies in the author's refusal to offer easy answers to his characters' problems, or even to mold what happens to them into a shapely story line. To read this narrative is, in effect, to share their disorientation and confusion.
Heath writes clearly and forcefully, swiftly compressing the events of nearly two decades into a mere 160 pages. His method is to present a series of disconnected, yet tightly focused scenes, richly detailed and textured, which lend his spare narrative the heft of a weightier saga. The abruptness of scene shifts, the sense of threads left hanging, does at times leave one with a feeling that parts of this novel are a little underdeveloped. But on the whole, his approach works well in conveying the raw, un finished quality of the characters' lives.