Most of the action of Minty Alley centers on the yard of Mrs. Rouse’s boardinghouse, the activity center for most poor and working-class Caribbean people. It is viewed through the eyes of Haynes, a pampered, young, educated middle-class bachelor, who has just lost his mother. The residents of Minty Alley establish him as their judge and confidant, the privileged outsider. His servant Ella attempts to shield him from the ways of these “ordinary” people, but she becomes ill and must go to her own home for many months, leaving the curious Haynes to his own devices. Initially, he is put off by his rough surroundings, but on the first night he is there, he witnesses the miraculous transformation of the house on the homecoming of the nurse, another of Mrs. Rouse’s boarders; she brings with her brandy and beer and an accompanying sense of luxury and gaiety, and the entire household, amid much laughing and joking (except Haynes, who has Ella prepare his meals separately), celebrates through the night, having dinner on a tablecloth in the dining room rather than on the kitchen table, talking and drinking until early morning. It is during the early hours, when Maisie and Mrs. Rouse have left for Mass, that Haynes, through a crack in his bedroom wall, spies Benoit, Mrs. Rouse’s longtime lover, and the nurse locked in an embrace and then hurrying to her room together.
This incident draws him into the drama of the extended household. Only the day before, Haynes was “compelled to summon a sickly smile and ignore the shocking insinuation,” Benoit had made regarding Ella: “Anyway, guard your property. I am a man girls like, you know. If she fall in my garden I wouldn’t have to lock the gate to keep her in.” Now, after witnessing the tryst between Benoit and the nurse, his usual composure is disturbed, but he is determined, as he tells the wary Ella, to come to like this place “very well.”
The novel is not about Haynes’s coming of age in a proletarian paradise, although he does achieve this by the end of the novel. He still remains the outsider, becoming involved in the lives of others not of his class or of his upbringing but never becoming one of them. Minty Alley is about working-class life, working-class culture, and, indirectly, the discrepancy between that life and the life of the black bourgeoisie. It is a slice of West Indian life, carefully detailed and unsentimental and, until that time, largely ignored. It is also screened through the sensibility of the middle-class outsider, who, though black, has clearly been predisposed to a wider, yet, inversely, more constricted and constrained, reality, a different life. By the end of the novel, the reader knows that, although Haynes is somewhat wiser and more compassionate, he has entered Minty Alley out of curiosity, not out of any affinity for its inhabitants. As for Mrs. Rouse, she is forced to sell her house. Haynes moves out; Maisie schemes her way to America; and Philomen, her Indian servant, finds a new position. Life will go on as before, perhaps a little more grimly for the women, each on her own path.
The crux of the novel lies not only in the community life of the yard but also in the individual antagonisms, the greatest being between the nurse and Mrs. Rouse after Benoit’s infidelity is discovered. The nurse, haughty and contemptuous, is driven from the household, but soon Benoit follows her. He marries her and dies a rather miserable death a year or so later. The nurse, meanwhile, is made to stand trial for thievery. She has been stealing those “gifts” she...