A Road Cut through the Heart of the Caribbean

John Hearne, John Hearne’s Short Fiction, ed. Shivaun Hearne (Kingston: University of the West Indies Press, 2016); 125 pages; ISBN 978-9766406066 (paperback)

• June 2018

John Hearne’s Short Fiction is a slim but handsome volume, beautifully designed and produced. Edited by Hearne’s daughter, Shivaun Hearne, with a foreword by Marlon James and an introduction by Kim Robinson-Walcott, the collection comprises nine stories plus an essay in the mode of a journal excerpt, which Shivaun Hearne includes “for the context it gives to the period in which these stories were written” (xvi). Shivaun Hearne’s preface establishes the book’s raison d’être: Hearne’s short fiction has never been collected and has, up to now, not been readily available. The preface explicitly frames this collection as an opportunity to re-consider the totality of Hearne’s work. It is also part of an effort to redress Hearne’s marginalization within the Caribbean literary canon—a reality pithily conveyed by a professor whom James recalls as saying, “Only John Hearne wrote about the white and brown Jamaican middle class, but nobody was reading him” (viii). The collection takes its place beside Shivaun Hearne’s earlier study, John Hearne’s Life and Fiction: A Critical Biographical Study (Caribbean Quarterly, 2013), which constitutes an invaluable companion to the present volume and is a resource for critics taking up the challenge explicitly and compellingly issued here: to reassess Hearne’s work and his place in our literary history.

There is much to admire in the conception of John Hearne’s Short Fiction and its framing of Hearne’s work. In the foreword, James’s vivid reminiscence of Hearne as a generous but exacting writing instructor segues into a thoughtful reflection on Hearne’s fiction and the reasons for the relative paucity of attention it has received. While admitting to some reservations about aspects of Hearne’s work, James puts Hearne’s marginalization largely down to the perception that his writing exemplified “the voice tied to colony, privilege, oppression and all . . . things British.” He then counters, “This is of course untrue,” calling Hearne a “pre/post-colonial complicator” more akin to Louis Simpson and Jean Rhys than to “a colonial apologist” like H. G. De Lisser (ix).

Robinson-Walcott’s introduction begins by describing the conditions of Hearne’s literary production, including his return to Jamaica from England in 1961 and the ways the changing political conditions in the new postcolony affected his working life and critical responses to his writing. She then supplies a critical survey of Hearne’s stories, contextualizing them within the more familiar landscape of his novels, pointing out congruencies of setting, theme, and character-type. Here, the reader also finds an even-handed assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of Hearne’s fiction; Robinson-Walcott concludes, “If his worldview sometimes seems colonial and dated in his novels, that is not the case in the majority of his short stories” (xxviii). She also asserts, “Politically, [Hearne’s] pan-Caribbean views were ahead of his time; and his embracing of a pan-Caribbean vision resulted in three of his strongest stories” (xxviii).

The stories themselves are largely organized chronologically, from the first, “The Mongoose Who Came to the City” (published 1953), a wry fable in which a country mongoose moves to Kingston, smokes a spliff, and becomes, for a time, widely feared and hunted by the authorities as a ruud bwai, to the last, “Reckonings” (never published but completed after 1966), in which a deceased author’s adult children grapple with the immediate aftermath of his death, his successes as a writer, and his failures as a parent.1 (My only complaint, and it is a minor one, is that although the volume’s preface does supply the publication history for each of the stories, it would have been helpful—particularly for scholars—to have also tagged each story with the year of its first publication.) The stories are set mostly in the anglophone Caribbean: Jamaica, Trinidad, British Guiana/Guyana, and the fictional Cayuna, in which four of Hearne’s novels are also set and for which he created and mapped a detailed physical geography.2 They also cover a broad swathe of psychological and emotional territory, from the sly humour of “Mongoose” to the savage despair conveyed by “Morning, Noon, and Night,” an affecting depiction of desperate poverty and elite indifference.

Most of the stories seem primarily interested in the interiority of men as they negotiate war, work, women, and, most centrally, their relationships with each other across distinctions of race, class, generation, and power differentials. This masculinist focus may provoke critique from contemporary readers, and with some justification. But it should be said that if maleness is his central theme in these stories, Hearne works hard to do that theme justice, exploring masculine antagonisms and intimacies of many kinds with a careful and critical eye. Moreover, masculine emotionality is not the only note in Hearne’s register, as evidenced by what, for my taste, is one of the strongest stories in the collection, “A Village Tragedy.” This story does indeed linger over the anxieties, motivations, and hostilities of a range of male characters, from the pious but self-interested Reverend Mackinnon and the jaded, alcoholic Doctor Rushie to the “half-witted” Joseph, who is treated with a casual cruelty by almost everyone around him. But this androcentric tendency is counterbalanced by the fierce tenderness of Joseph’s little sister, Elvira, one of only two people who show him kindness and attention, and even more so by the striking portrait of the village elder, Miss Vera Brownford:

Vera Brownford . . . had lived so long and so completely that she had grown to want nothing but freedom from pain. At times the shadow-line between life and death was not very distinct to her expectation, her desire or her feeling but she understood the terror and confusion that the crossing of the line brought to those younger than herself. And, understanding this, she gave comfort as a tree gives shade . . . with a vast, experienced impartiality. It was her occupation. (15–16)

Here one sees the very best traits of Hearne’s prose: it is elegant but evocative, neither shying away from emotion nor succumbing to sentiment. Moreover, the moral compass that orients these stories is steady but not rigid or absolutist. And despite those aspects of his fiction that might invite critiques of an internalized colonialist worldview, a progressive sensibility, on several fronts, is also in evidence. In addition to the Pan-Caribbean vision Robinson-Walcott foregrounds, there are also, at various points, an explicitly antiracist and profeminist stance, a critique of racial ideologies as corrosive of national cohesion, and a queer male character sympathetically portrayed. The stories focalized through or narrated by non-white, non-elite characters are as finely and compellingly wrought as the others—these characters are neither caricatures nor even (for the most part) types. In all, this volume does a fine job of reminding readers of Hearne’s considerable artistry and supporting its claim that his work merits renewed and thoughtful attention from all of us who are interested in Caribbean literature.


Rachel L. Mordecai received her MA from the University of the West Indies and her PhD from the University of Minnesota. She teaches Caribbean literature at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is the author of Citizenship Under Pressure: The 1970s in Jamaican Literature and Culture (UWI Press, 2014); her new book project investigates the deployment and refashioning of the family-saga genre by twentieth- and twenty-first-century Caribbean writers.



1 Hearne’s story “Living Out the Winter” was first published in 1994, but Shivaun Hearne notes that it was written “much earlier—likely in the late 1950s or early 1960s” (xvi); accordingly, it appears before “Reckonings” in this collection.

2 See Shivaun Hearne, John Hearne’s Life and Fiction: A Critical Biographical Study (Kingston: Caribbean Quarterly, University of the West Indies, 2013), 46.


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