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Washed by the Gulf Stream: The Historic and Geographic Relation of Irish and Caribbean Literature (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 46, Number 3-4, Spring-Summer 2009
pp. 622-624 | 10.1353/jjq.2008.0033

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Washed by the Gulf Stream offers a wide-ranging study of twentieth-century Caribbean and Irish literature. It follows in the wake of recent efforts to bring a more comparative approach to bear on the question of diaspora. It is easy to forget that Paul Gilroy's The Black Atlantic concludes by likening African-American struggles to Jewish ones, as does Jonathan Freedman's The Temple of Culture, or that George Bornstein's Material Modernism ponders the aesthetics of Afro-Celtic interchange. For all the current interest in globalization and transnational literary formations, scholars immersed in specific cultural traditions—such as African-American, Irish, and modernist studies—have sometimes found it difficult to build on the provocative arguments found in these comparative ventures. This is exactly the task Maria McGarrity's book sets for itself.

What facilitates this comparative approach to Caribbean and Irish literature is not a specific pattern of cultural traffic between the two regions but instead an "island imaginary," an archipelagic geography that mutually illuminates these two traditions (22). The book's title, an allusion to Derek Walcott's Omeros, also should be read as a playful nod in the direction of two other giants of Caribbean literature, Kamau Brathwaite and Edouard Glissant, both of whom have turned to oceanic metaphors to describe the region's cultural character. The Gulf Stream (along with the less felicitously named North Atlantic Drift) is the term for the vast movement of water in the North Atlantic, beginning roughly in the Caribbean, moving northwards along the coast of the United States and Canada, before swirling across the Atlantic and splitting into various channels and eddies off Europe and Africa. In settling on the Gulf Stream as a central conceit, McGarrity hopes to challenge the assumption that culture flows from Europe to the rest of the world. Instead, her model places "both traditions in a level comparative system that does not ignore influence but more fruitfully examines correspondence" (9).

The book is anchored by an ambitious chapter on Ulysses and Omeros. Both texts are idiosyncratic adaptations of Greek mythology, but McGarrity focuses less on their respective uses of Homeric legend and instead concentrates on the symbol of the ocean. Joyce and Walcott, she argues, rely heavily on descriptions of water and shorelines to "assert new centers and question borders of land and sea, culture and identity" (87). British imperialism and anti-imperial nationalism are equally unattractive options for these figures. Instead, McGarrity suggests that they resort to a symbolic geography of "errantry"—seemingly aimless, disjointed wandering—to challenge the fixity of borders, both subjective and political (113, 118). Further discussions of drifting and exile make it clear that McGarrity favors an approach that would open up Joyce's Dublin and Walcott's St. Lucia to a vast array of global influences. Despite this objective, I am not fully convinced that the weight of the chapter's theoretical structure is fully supported by its exercises in close reading. The comparison of Molly Bloom with Maud Plunkett, of Omeros, comes nearest to fulfilling this promise.

The book's other chapters provide thematic surveys of the Caribbean-Irish connection. Chapter 1 is largely a historical treatment of the Irish presence in the Caribbean, offering some fascinating overviews of colonial history in Barbados, Jamaica, and Montserrat, each of which had Irish communities that have been largely expunged from the region's collective memory. Chapter 2 provides a comparison of "Big House" and "Plantation" novels, discussing John Banville's Birchwood, Alejo Carpentier's The Kingdom of This World, Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea, and E. Œ. Somerville and Martin Ross's The Big House of Inver. The final chapter discusses two related genres—the Bildungsroman and the artist's memoir—featuring considerations of A Portrait, George Lamming's In the Castle of My Skin, Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes, and Jamaica Kincaid's My Brother.

In these chapters, McGarrity demonstrates wide familiarity with the vast secondary literature on Irish writing, but she seems slightly more comfortable working with postcolonial theory: Glissant, Homi Bhabha, and Edward Said are three of the more familiar names that recur in her readings. Yet the book as a whole attempts to...



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