Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Dominica: The Orchid House, by Phyllis Shand Allfrey

"The Orchid House" is narrated by Lally, the elderly servant of a white family who have fallen on hard times in an unnamed Caribbean Island. The three small girls who had ben in Lally's charge have now grown up - Natalie is a wealthy widow, who is supporting her impoverished parents, Stella has married a farmer in America and Joan is in England where she is politically involved in the Labour Party.

During the course of the story, the girls return one by one to the island. Their father is ill and drug dependent after returning from "the war" (apparently the First World War). Each daughter tries in her own way to change things - Joan through politics, Natalie with money, and Stella with a drastic course of action that has unforeseen consequences. Caught up in the story also are Mademoiselle Bosquet, the girls' childhood French teacher who is in love with "the Master", and a young man, Andrew, dying of tuberculoses - but which sister does he most love? And which of them loves him?

The book was originally published in 1953 and was for a long time forgotten, as colonialism was left behind and the political situation in the Caribbean changed - though a film adaptation was made in 1990. There is an introduction to the current edition written by Schuyler Esprit, a scholar of Caribbean literature and post colonial studies. In it she puts the book in its cultural and political context. Although some of the finer details of her explanation were a little lost on me, nevertheless I found it worthwhile reading, all it would be quite possible to enjoy the book without it.

Phyllis Shand Allfrey was born and brought up in Dominica, and lived in New York and London as a young woman. She returned to Dominica in the 1950s, was a cofounder of the Dominica Labour Party, and subsequently became a newspaper editor. The current edition of The Orchid House was published in 2016 by Papillote Press, a publishing house which specialises in Caribbean literature.

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