Sunday, January 10, 2016

A High Wind in Jamaica - Richard Hughes

'A High Wind in Jamaica' was an impulse buy to celebrate the news that Waterstones was back in the black (I like to do my bit and keep up the good work...). I think I chose it because it mentioned pirates and sounded just different enough to what I had been reading to be appealing.

It turned out to be an excellent choice. It has something of the atmosphere of 'Lord of the Flies' about it, which it pre dates. Very briefly it's the story of a group of children bought up in Jamaica, their parents decide to send them back to England after a hurricane and an earthquake make it seem to dangerous for them to stay. They're put on the barque Clorinda (written in 1929 it feels like it's set pre WW1) and set sail under the care of the sailors.

The children (ranging in age from about 13 to roughly 4) are happy enough learning their way about a ship and affectionately attached to the crew, but when the Clorinda is taken by pirates and they are almost accidentally taken hostage they are just as content with the new crew, not unnaturally assuming that this has been a simple, and planned, transfer all part of some adult plan. As the truth gradually dawns on them they are for the most part indifferent to it, with the exception of Margaret, the eldest, who as not quite a child has a different understanding of what might happen to her.

The children are a problem for the pirates who are more petty criminal than violent brigands - their presence is essentially a death sentence, and so they plot to move them on. Before that can happen though there's another raid and (spoiler) one of the children kills a man. It changes everything for the Pirates, though again for the most part the children brush it off.

What Hughes does beautifully is show how irritating as well as endearing children can be. Their innocence, or maybe ignorance, protects them from the harm that the Pirates might have done them, and from the harm their experiences might cause - with the exception of Margaret, who does understand, and suffers for it.

To the adults in the book the children are hard to fathom, as children are, but the other thing Hughes does beautifully is explore their logic along with the limited morality that children might be expected to possess. It's not that they're immoral, or even amoral, but that they haven't learnt about the shades of grey yet.

The extra ingredient is that the story telling is utterly compelling, it gets under your skin and stays there. The ending is horribly inevitable, it made me want to do whatever the reading equivalent of looking away is, but I couldn't - it's a brilliant book


  1. I haven't read the book, but the film adaptation of this (with Anthony Quinn as the pirate king) sounds as though it was very faithful - I had to look away at the end too.

    1. I need to look out for the film, it sounds great, the book is excellent. Really worth reading!