Thursday, April 2, 2009

Rivers of Time – Why is everyone talking to Philippa? (Matador) Caribbean Book Review by James Henderson

Rivers of Time is about captivation by the Caribbean. It is set largely on Nevis, which is ideal for a romantic dream of this sort to begin with. More than on other islands it is possible to see the history there – the plantation buildings poking through the overgrowth and the incredibly pretty stone bridges marooned by the straightened road. Pause for a moment and in these ruins you can feel the effort, care, even love that went into building the island. It is this connection with the West Indies, the people who carved their life in a frontier land, that is the most romantic tale of all.

As you might expect from the title, Rivers of Time momentarily draws together the streams of several lives. One is that of the author herself, Dr June Goodfield, who visits the island on holiday (and stays at Montpelier Plantation Inn, itself an old plantation restored). She is shown a memorial stone lost in the bush. There is not much more than three names – Philippa Prentis Phillips and those of her two husbands - and the year of her death. But it is the start of a compulsion and the courses of the two lives combine. Who was this other woman? What was her life like? How did it start and end? Captivation complete.

The discovery is a process that takes 20 years in all. Dr Goodfield describes the many people she meets and how she trawls libraries and archives, gathering any, even the tiniest, nugget of information that can contribute to her story. At one stage we hear that among the 12,000 emigrants recorded in one archive just two were called Philippa – what luck that there were only two, but at one every 6000, what an effort to find them.

The book divides into three sections, the first and last of which are a frame on which the story is woven. They are written in the first person by Dr Goodfield and tell the story of the discovery, her motivation and her eventual resolution of the search. But the other, the middle section, is very different. Here the author departs from the factual and personal and, using her considerable knowledge of Nevis and undoubted expertise as a historian, tells the story in a different way, as a historical novel.

She follows the story of Philippa Stephens from her village in Ashburton in Devon in the early 1600s, through the plague which decimated her village, to emigration in The Margarett in 1634 and her arrival in Nevis. Then she tells of her life, as Philippa and her husband carve out their plantation on Saddle Hill, planting first tobacco and indigo and later sugar. Their lives mirror the success and development of Nevis itself, which was so fertile and productive that it was known as ‘the Queen of the Caribbees’.

As Goodfield herself acknowledges, to fictionalise a story in this way is a controversial method among historians, but she feels that it is the best way for her to bring back the memories of these other, now forgotten lives. Of course there is simply no way of being sure that it is true (and life for Philippa is quite likely to have been blacker and more desperate than she describes) - but by presenting it in this way she makes it more compelling to read. The drier aspects of the history, all that peering in documents, which sustains the frame of the story is reduced, so that it does not become overwhelming. There is a good deal of imaginary dialogue, which though clearly modern, is otherwise convincing and brings the lives and concerns of Philippa Prentis and her family alive.

Rivers of Time is an easy and pleasant read. It is also revealing. While the narrative is necessarily uncertain, the setting on the other hand is solid. You can feel the work of the historian in the background, drawing on extensive research and understanding to paint life in the early days of Nevis, when the small colony struggled for survival but gradually grew into a successful settlement.

The author also has an obvious love for Nevis, which will make a regular visitor smile. There is a touching sense of gentle Nevisian charm and politeness. And, in typical West Indian fashion, as soon as word gets about of Goodfield’s quest, everyone pitches in to help.

And Rivers of Time was certainly enough to captivate my wife. She began to read it over my shoulder and then nipped off with the book when I put it down.

Rivers of Time – Why is everyone talking to Philippa? By June Goodfield, published by Matador,

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