- The Polished Hoe
"My name is Mary." The first line of Austin Clarke's The Polished Hoe could also be the last; the entire work begins and ends with Mary's statement about a crime that she has committed. The confession takes place in Mary's house,known as the Great House, on a sugar plantation on the Caribbean island of Bimshire. It is circa 1952, and the Great House'sowner, Mr. Bellfeels, has been murdered. Mary has been Mr. Bellfeels' mistress until now. She confesses to the act early in the novel, first before the Corporal and then before the Sergeant of Flagstaff Village. The novel thusdoes not hinge on the suspense of who committed the crime, but rather on the "why"; the answer to that "why" lies within the frames of interrogation, memory and imagination. Clarke has written, through this long personal journey, a Caribbean island's complex oral history of violence, exploitation and complicity; these are all legacies of an earlier crime, slavery. The sites of violence are the body and the mind, the visible and the invisible, but Clarke's preferred location for both the atrocities of sexual crimes and the pleasures of seduction is the landscape of the cane fields.
The relationship between collective history and personal narrative is explored in the novel, but Clarke's treatment of this seemingly overexploited Caribbean theme creates a singular space for The Polished Hoe, in which Clarke formulates a complex equation without an obvious solution. Mary reconstructs her narrative of the past from both her memory and her imagination, admitting that she "cannot make the distinction between living-outa story, and reading a story" (211). For her, real life and imagination are one and the same. "It is the fact, and it is the story" (211) she says. However, the novel exposes the inadequacy of that statement, since the nature of Mary's confessions destabilizes the notion of one narrative. Her story is now being voiced, but there are many more yet to be told, both real and imagined.
Mary's many identities illustrate the interconnectedness of personal narratives and the manner in which they inform or undermine the island's collective history. People in the Village call her Mary Mathilda, or Tilda for short. Her mother called her Mary-girl; she was christened Mary Gertrude Mathilda; and her surname is either Paul or Bellfeels, "depending who you speak to" (3). The shifts in Mary's identity depend on her location and context. She can be either mistress of the Great House or Bellfeels' whore.Clarke, who never shies away from humor to evoke the gravity of a situation, puns on the title of his novel; ahoe in StandardEnglish is a plantation tool, but in the English Caribbean "hoe" is another word for whore. The polished hoe is then both subject and object of a crime as Bellfeels has been murdered by his polished whore with the farm instrument.
Negotiating multiple social spaces has given Mary a view from both the inside and the outside. She knows more than her old friend Percy (the Sergeant), and reveals so when she says that he is "a stranger to the truth, to the history, and to the actions of the powerful [End Page 680] in this island" (348). Mary wants to tell her story, to have it recorded, since "narratives are the only inheritance that poor people can hand down to their offspring" (355). But hers is not a simple act of retelling. It is also a way of re-entering a past in an attempt to understand the ironies of her life and of her own actions. Simultaneously, while Bellfeels and his friends are presented as the instigators and perpetrators of many horrible crimes on the island, Clarke also points to the interrelated nature of crime, in which many members of Flagstaff Village, through their silent complicity, are also guilty. While establishing the racism of the powerful on the island, the novel also reveals the way in which the less powerful community, through fear of reprisals, disengages and does little to help the...