Book Review: The Village Curtain

About the Book
The Village Curtain is a collection of fictional stories, sketches and imaginary characters woven into a novel and set in the coastal communities of Jamaica . Considerable effort is made to make the physical and technical descriptions of the conditions and methods employed by village fishermen as precise as possible. This is based upon more than forty years of experience in this field by the author.  The pieces gradually and gently introduce a range of “types” which populate these sea front places. The characters drift in and out of the narrative as the time line progresses, giving increasingly greater insights as to their survival techniques and their personalities. The whole book is designed to expose the contradictions existing between what appears to be an idyllic and picturesque life and the actual struggle which these folks must wage on a daily basis and why their very culture has made them suspicious of intrusion from outside (especially official intrusion). However well-meaning these schemes and projects may be when conceived in theory, they must contend with local reality and an ingrained tendency to view intervention by anyone born outside the village circle with great caution. This is not to suggest that this culture is inhospitable. On the contrary, there is a very genuine welcome expressed to all newcomers, up to a point. The problem is that many of the ways of staying alive in these marginal districts do not accord with formally sanctioned activities so the unwritten law of limiting access to intimate matters prevails. Along the way you will meet a village elder who has mellowed but remains certain in his system of providing guidance and comment, disillusioned providers of charity, sometime drug smugglers and a man who thinks the best way to harvest the ocean is to throw explosives in it. There are lots of others, but that’s the kind of variety to expect. A word on the weather. Throughout this assembly of semi-independent short stories the weather is a major element. It circumscribes almost everything that takes place on or near the ocean. People who try to make their living from the land or the sea will glance at the sky twenty times a day to read the signs which will guide them in this work. Every farmer, hunter and fisherman is an amateur meteorologist. I hope that I have been at least partially successful at bringing the smell of the salt spray at daybreak and rage of the hurricane into the general atmosphere of this book as well as the tranquil sound of a quiet, rainy night.

Review by Marie Gregory is a freelance writer for Caribbean Today.

When Kingstonian Tony Tame began to write “The Village Curtain” he had specific ideas as to what he hoped to achieve.

The first aim was “to examine a specific segment of West Indian – and in particular Jamaican – society’s use of culturally unique survival techniques and the private atmosphere which tends to be produced within small Caribbean fishing communities”.

The second intention was “that readers will enjoy experiencing the sharp contrast between appearance and reality in what seems so picturesque and idyllic a place as the West Indies where the outcome of the best charitable, official and bureaucratic efforts is always uncertain at best”.

“The Village Curtain” is described on the cover as “A Jamaican Collection”.

That is, perhaps, somewhat misleading. I expected a collection of short stories. True, the stories are there, full of interesting vignettes and characters who appear and reappear. Yet the framework is more that of a novel. The action needs to be followed chronologically.There is no obvious human hero. The story deals with the sea, survival and the village Tame has spent a lifetime in the marine industry. He admits that he has never earned a cent that has not come from his dealings with the sea. The first chapter and references throughout point to fishing – reading the weather, even dynamiting the coral reefs – testimony to his intimate knowledge. He is fascinated by the various methods used in fishing, sympathetic to the plight of those who eke out survival in that uncertain environment.

UNDERSTANDING – Characters in the book are treated with understanding. The human spirit is strong, as illustrated over and over whether through Sonia, the visiting American who falls in love with the Black River area and wants to develop tourism; Mikey, who survives a Florida prison and almost loses his life at sea; or Leo, who dynamites the reef and loses an arm yet is able to continue with an adapted method. The hardships bind communities together, watched over by village elder “Mr. James”, a ganja grower, who dispenses white rum liberally, yet sticks to coconut water himself. The homespun wisdom of the man allows him to deal with people at all levels – politicians, charity workers, visitors and police – advising quietly, carrying on his own activities, ever hospitable yet never lifting the village curtain more than a few inches.

COMMENTARY – Social commentary is scattered throughout. We hear of the young officer from Kingston explaining basic seamanship to the men of the village who had fished the Pedro Banks since they were 10 years old, and the Englishman who comes to the Police Force as deputy commissioner telling the press that he has not come to solve crime. Finally, there is the “Charity Man”, so called by “Mr. James”.

Here is the disillusioned dogooder who sees his projects diverted from their original intent. Tame is a master of understatement. We are allowed glimpses of lives in the community. The curtain is never lifted completely. The final vignette is of the dog, “a formal sort of dog”, passing to other owners after the death of Myra, the love of his life. Nameless, loyal, knowing, the dog becomes an alcoholic after being given rum in the local bar. The chapter, which deals with the death and burial of the animal, is touching.

As the story closes and “Sonia”, about to return to her homeland, looks at “Mr. James” and sees the veil of his eyes, the moment of truth teaches her “it’s not a veil, it’s a curtain. Curtain, hell. It’s a wall”.

Tame says: “I hope that I have been at least partially successful at bringing the smell of the salt spray at daybreak and rage of the hurricane into the general atmosphere of this book as well as the tranquil sound of a quiet, rainy night”. Mission accomplished. Marie Gregory is a freelance writer for Caribbean Today.

Born in 1943, Tony Tame has been associated with the marine industry in Jamaica since the mid 1960’s. After 1970 he became directly involved in the supply and service of equipment to the commercial fishing industry in Jamaica . His lifelong interest has been the methods used in various types of fishing and the people who work in this field. Still active in this field his fascination with these topics is undiminished. He lives in Kingston , Jamaica with his devoted wife of thirty-nine years, Jennifer. Jennifer is Tony’s business manager. They have two children, a son Sean who helps to run the family owned company and a daughter Stephanie who is a senior lecturer in the Linguistics Department of the University of Geneva, Switzerland.