A Question of Home

June 2017

Lawrence Scott, Leaving by Plane, Swimming Back Underwater, and Other Stories (London: Papillote, 2015); 176 pages; ISBN 978-0957118782 (paperback)

Lawrence Scott begins his latest collection of short stories by asking his reader, using the words of poet Phyllis Shand Allfrey, to “now score / the underlying question on each sheet / and draw a line between the plaited past / and the untangling present.”1 One principal underlying question, running like a musical riff throughout this collection, emerges: Does home remain?

What is it, where is it, and how can a person hold on to it if they have chosen to leave it? These are questions that are painfully relevant to our contemporary global context characterized by waves of forced and economic migration. Scott confronts us with a lost wholeness versus “the pleasures of exile.” The scene is set between the Caribbean, often Trinidad and Tobago, and Europe, mostly Britain.

“What, if any, are the peculiar pleasures of exile?” asked George Lamming in 1960.2 In light of Lamming’s and his generation’s reflections on initial West Indian migrant experiences in postwar Britain, Scott seems to question whether some of the issues facing the latter-day migrant are, in essence, of the same nature. Has the experience changed or has it simply shape-shifted in response to postcolonialism?

Each story, approaching diverse facets of transatlantic island life, seems to become a version of a common elegy for “home,” for “belonging.” The underlying question always remains, albeit unanswered: Can you really go back home?

Spirituality plays a significant and intriguing role. In the title story, Scott explores one aspect of Catholicism’s grip on certain Trinidadian communities. Fervent childhood belief is followed by disillusionment, which has been triggered in turn by a misguided yet “now irrevocable” severance from “home” (108). Reflecting on his younger self, the narrator admits, “It frightened me, what I had done, leaving my mother, father, home and country to find God” (109).

There is at one point an extended focus on the intimate, higgledy-piggledy nature of riding the bus in what we might assume is the Trinidadian landscape of Scott’s childhood. A compulsion to follow the lines of home’s hand is revealed here: the bus route, the streets, the smells, the people, that well-worn journey to church; tracing and retracing them, a process that, to the narrator, “feels now like swimming back underwater to discover what had first set [him] on this journey” (98).

Through the narrator’s childhood recollections, and elsewhere, the reader perceives echoes of another, more ancient loss: the tearing away from origin and self experienced by the Africans who crossed the Middle Passage to become slaves in the Americas. “I entered the night of black skins turbaned in white cotton, still trembling with drums silenced by the dawn, made hesitant by history,” the narrator recollects with familiarity. “The gods of one place inhabit the saints of another” (105).

Several stories explore the effects of violent crime ravaging contemporary Trinidad and Tobago and the uneasy yet necessary coexistence of this with ordinary life. Particular attention is paid to the impotence of judgement and justice. “Our pretty island is a killing field,” admits one character, a judge who feels backed into a corner (160). “Incident on Rosary Street” tells of a young mother stuck in urban poverty who loses her daughter to a brutal attack, with no explanation and no justice, only the rooftop corbeaux who “stared implacably. Judges in a court.” (94). Other stories consider the interaction between sexuality and criminality. One looks through the eyes of a recently returned journalist, a gay man who gets drawn into reporting on a string of child kidnappings and abuse cases, becoming unjustly caught in the cross-fire in a way he could not have imagined. Scott faces the crushing senselessness of vicious acts both head on and from subtler, more obscure angles. Throughout, motive is either only partially revealed or remains opaque, and questions are asked, then left unanswered, a lament humming constantly beneath the white noise of modern-day life in Trinidad and Tobago.

In “A Dog Is Buried,” along with a sense of sexual ambiguity, physical, and emotional displacement, there emanates an atmosphere of veiled threat both from nature and the people around the protagonist, one reflecting and reinforcing the other, leading to an overriding atmosphere of insecurity.

In “Tales Told under the San Fernando Hill,” Scott invokes the familiar “Eden” trope, portraying a lush Caribbean garden as the setting for the playing out of childhood innocence on the verge of alleged corruption. However, Scott questions how it is possible to be and to become in such a place, when this “Eden” is soaked with the blood, sweat, and tears of so many who have come before, in a garden that sighs simultaneously with the innocent pleasure of children discovering themselves and one another and with the weight of so much painful history. Here, sexuality and spirituality intertwine, raising questions that challenge the very fabric of traditional Caribbean society, cleverly asked and chewed over through the prism of village gossip. Yet encouragingly, one of these gossipers, Mrs. Nunez, admits to her friend, “You know life tell me that all kind of people capable of all kind of things. What you calling sin? I believe that some of them is not even sin” (27).

From the fall of humanity, Scott moves toward a reflection on the unforgiving might of the natural world. “Ash on Guavas” depicts human endeavor smashed to pieces by the unpredictable whims of nature. When the ash from an unexpected volcanic eruption rains down, it prizes several of the characters away from one another and their “darling of an island” (45). At the story’s heart is a recognition that abundance and natural beauty are always tempered with risk. It feels thoroughly Caribbean and global; a tale at once modern and as old as time, as “history continues to echo and re-echo its story” (53). It is a feat echoed by Monique Roffey’s Archipelago and in one of Earl Lovelace’s earliest works, The Schoolmaster (1968). One is left grieving for the characters and their lost world as though it is one’s own because, really, it could be. The primal rhythm running through this story is evoked by the protagonist’s dwelling upon a collection of biblical, ancient-feeling words while reading a book. “Sarah mused: cleft, riven, naked, cling” (49). The story of us all hides within this single line.

Scott’s collection closes with a moving reflection on the role notions of “home” and “belonging” may have in the context of dementia. An elderly woman, Elspeth, living in London, responds to a selection of old, long-lost photographs of her childhood life in rural Trinidad with visceral clarity. Talking about her childhood home, she speaks as if she can “feel the very pulse of the house, a throbbing pulse, repeating its mantra: Home Home” (188).

Each story represents a different strand of identity, experience and perspective within another, and Scott skillfully considers certain impacts of existing in and originating from the Trinidadian and wider Caribbean context. His previous novel, Light Falling on Bamboo (2012), meditated on the impacts of a return “home” after years of living and existing, physically and mentally, “elsewhere.” But while the novel delved into the Trinidad of the past, this collection of stories firmly interrogates the present as to where and what “home” is, has been, and could become.


Sophie Harris is a Spanish and French specialist and freelance writer currently teaching modern languages in Oxford. She earned an MA in Caribbean and Latin American studies from the University of London and wrote her MA thesis on the significance of the Black Power movement in the work of Earl Lovelace. Her interests include literature from across the Caribbean region, with a particular focus on that of Trinidad and Tobago.


1 Phyllis Shand Allfrey, “Turn the Leaves,” in Love for an Island: The Collected Poems of Phyllis Shand Allfrey (London: Papillote, 2014).

2 George Lamming, The Pleasures of Exile (1960; repr., Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992), 23.


Related Articles