The Ventriloquist’s Tale

I’ve been putting off writing about this book because….well, where to begin? No, really, where should it begin?

Perhaps it should begin with what I liked the most about The Ventriloquist’s Tale. Its setting. Guyana.

I know not of other books that are set in Guyana, do you?. I’ve never been to Guyana, nor has that thought – or any Guyana-related thought – ever crossed my mind. So it was a really refreshing setting, a nice change from the modern, western, or made-up world which most books I read live in. Guyana is a land of sounds, of smells, of animals, of cassava, rain and rivers and heat.

It is a story told by a ventriloquist, although I have to profess that I don’t quite understand why. And when that ventriloquist’s prologue began, I was a bit wary – was this going to end up as magical realism? I wasn’t all that keen on that genre. But the narrator throws the reader into the ‘real’ world of Chofy McKinnon, a Wapisiana Indian (who also has some Anglo blood – Scottish more precisely – in the mix). A farmer who lives with his family in the savannahs, he is driven to nearby Georgetown for work. Tagging along is his aunt Wifreda, who is due for an eye operation. There, he meets and falls for Rosa Mendelsohn, who is researching Evelyn Waugh and his journey to Guyana in the 1930s,  supposedly spending time with the McKinnon family. But most of the narrative follows the McKinnon family in the early 1900s, offering a comparison of cultures and lifestyles, of different times, religion, and two different love affairs.

After getting over my initial disinterest in this book,  I actually found myself quite immersed in this unusual story. But there’s still something about it that I’m not sure about. I can’t say that I liked it enough to gushingly recommend it to anyone, neither did I dislike it to the point of abandoning it or throwing it across the room. The Ventriloquist’s Tale is quite an intriguing debut novel with a unique and quite wondrous setting. The story itself though, isn’t exactly something that will stay with me.

Title: The Ventriloquist’s Tale
Author: Pauline Melville
Year: 1997
Awards: Whitbread First Novel (1997); Orange Prize Nominee for Fiction (1998)

I read this book as part of the Global Reading Challenge.

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