In the Castle of My Skin

by George Lamming

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 762

In the Castle of My Skin is an autobiographical novel by a young native of Barbados living in England. The novel’s plot covers the years from the time of a great flood when the narrator is nine years old to the eve of his departure for the larger island of Trinidad at the age of seventeen.

The virtually unnamed narrator, G., clearly is a surrogate for the author, though Lamming’s narrative strategy of alternating first-person and third-person narrators has the effect of submerging G.’s identity beneath the larger collective identity and situation of the inhabitants of Creighton’s Village. The larger intended effect of the occasionally confusing alternation of narrators is that two mutually reinforcing stories are told within one narrative frame. The first is the story of the ostensible protagonist’s coming-of-age and the dawning of his political awareness. The second story concerns the great social upheavals that occur over the years, especially following the sale of the village by Mr. Creighton, the landlord, to a group of men including Mr. Slime, the populist leader who betrays the villagers’ trust.

In the Castle of My Skin begins during a rainstorm on G.’s ninth birthday, a reference to an actual flood that afflicted Barbados when Lamming was a child. The early scenes of G.’s disappointment and his mother’s response (she “put her head through the window to let the neighbour know that I was nine, and they flattered me with the consolation that my birthday had brought showers of blessing”) effectively establish the setting as well as the sense of collective identity, awareness, and suffering that are crucial to the novel’s purpose. The first-person narrator makes this explicit as he describes his mother visiting with two neighbor women:Miss Foster. My mother. Bob’s mother. It seemed they were three pieces in a pattern which remained constant. The flow of its history was undisturbed by any difference in the pieces, nor was its evenness affected by any likeness. There was a difference and there was no difference.

In the domestic geography of the village, he conveys a naturalness and innocence that surely will not last to the book’s end:In the corner where one fence merged into another, and the sunlight filtering through the leaves made a limitless suffusion over the land, the pattern had arranged itself with absolute unawareness.

The important third chapter, written in the third person, achieves a skillful segue from a general depiction of a boy’s school and a Queen’s Birthday celebration to a subtly crucial plot element involving a potential scandal for a teacher, Mr. Slime, who resigns and later becomes a populist leader. The short fourth chapter features a discussion by Ma and Pa, an emblematic, chorus-like elderly couple, of Mr. Slime’s new projects, the Penny Bank and the Friendly Society. Referring to the migration of many West Indians early in the twentieth century to Panama to work building the canal there, Ma says: “’Tis a next Panama we need now for the young ones. I sit there sometimes an’ I wonder what’s goin’ to become o’ them, the young that comin’ up so fast to take the place o’ the old. ’Tis a next Panama we want, Pa, or there goin’ to be bad times comin’ this way.”

Much of the heart of the novel is nearly plotless, though not purposeless. The narrator and his friends Trumper and Boy Blue engage in adolescent ruminations on the beach. Many of the ideas expressed by the three boys, about the sadness and loss of growing up, about sexual awakening, about their place in the village and their wonder at the opportunities of the outside world, are hardly specific to the Caribbean. These universal themes establish In the Castle of My Skin squarely in the tradition of the bildungsroman.

The narrator goes off to the High School, establishing an unwanted distance between him and his friends. A riot—like the flood, the fictional counterpart of a historical event in Barbados—jars the villagers into an uneasy awareness that times are changing. Trumper emigrates to the United States. He returns just in time to tell the narrator about that country. The novel ends with the narrator on the verge of leaving for Trinidad and the community on the verge of ruin from the landlord’s sale of its land to a group including the apparently treacherous Mr. Slime. Mr. Slime’s complicity in the land sale is not narrated explicitly but can be supposed from strong hints.

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