Richard Hughes •
A High Wind in Jamaica •
Novelist Andrew Sean Greer credits A High Wind in Jamaica with reviving the thrill of reading for him. It’s a wild, unsettling ride, and like all Hughes’s books, it packs a visceral punch.
Following a hurricane that flattens their home in the West Indies, the five Bas-Thornton children are dispatched on a voyage to England, where it’s presumed they will be safer. But only a few days out of port the Clorinda is waylaid by pirates, and her captain writes to tell the Bas-Thornton parents that John, Emily, Edward, Rachel, and Laura have been killed and their bodies dumped in the sea.
Except that they haven’t.
Instead, they’ve been taken on board by a crew of brigands who haven’t a clue about children. The haphazard alliance forged between scalawags and small fry is by turns comic, gruesome, and bizarre; it’s hard to say whose behavior is the most disturbing.
The prose simply sings. ”Jonsen slipper-sloppered up and down his side of the deck” creates an instant mental picture, as does “One cannot wish for a more comfortable seat than an acquiescent pig.” Hughes is also acutely sensitive to divergent perceptions. Mrs. Bas-Thornton is convinced that her offspring are overly devoted to her, when in fact they scarcely register her existence. Pirates are more to their taste than parents.
On their eventual arrival in England, the children are questioned about the atrocities they’ve surely witnessed. The worst crime Rachel can think of is that one pirate used the shocking word drawers. “He told us once not to toboggan down the deck on them,” Emily explains. That blending of the grisly with the farcical makes for an indelible reading experience.
And who wouldn’t like to consult a squeaking oracle called the Mouse with the Elastic Tail?