Michael Thelwell

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Mel Watkins

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[Michael Thelwell] has written a richly textured novel [The Harder They Come] that maintains the film's dramatic impact yet provides a unique and resonant view of Jamaican culture and grassroots consciousness….

From the outset, Mr. Thelwell emphasizes the vital connection between the land and the people who inhabit it…. (p. 511)

Also, early on, Mr. Thelwell begins threading descriptions of the Jamaican peasants' remarkably varied folklore into the narrative. His depiction of the traditional "Nine Nights Feast," for instance, is riveting and illuminating. It captures the joy and anxiety associated with the songs, dances and elaborate rituals that are performed to assure the safe departure of deceased spirits. (pp. 511-12)

The depiction of Rhygin naïvely confronting the poverty, ruthlessness and violence of the city streets has a Dickensian cast to it, and Mr. Thelwell emphatically draws the stark contrast between the city and the idyllic environment Rhygin has left….

In structure, "The Harder They Come" is clearly a pastoral novel. Its explicit criticism of the corruption, antihumanism and violence of city life and "progress" places it in a literary tradition that is as venerable as Vergil's "Bucolica." And, as with many of its predecessors in the genre, there is a decided leaning toward the romantic and sentimental.

But, more importantly, Mr. Thelwell's novel pulses with the rhythm and feel of Jamaican life. The dialogue of his characters is authentically rendered and perfectly reflects the singsong cadences of much West Indian dialect. His descriptions of rural myth and folklore practices, and of the honky-tonks, dives and teeming streets of Kingston capture both the vitality and despair of Jamaica's common people. And there are some striking set pieces, such as the satirical description of a "Ras Tafarian" rally at which the faithful set out to "capture de city." Waving their swords and chanting, "Let de powah from Zion fall on I," they march into Kingston only to have their leaders sound the retreat the moment the police oppose them.

Finally, though, it is the point of view that most distinguishes this novel. Mr. Thelwell forces the reader to view Jamaican culture from within—from the perspective of a Jamaican. In fact, the dialogue is so realistic that some readers may initially have problems deciphering it…. Still, once the insistently indigenous perspective is accepted, "The Harder They Come" offers an authentic and exceedingly rich portrait of Jamaican life beyond the tourist hotels. (p. 512)

Mel Watkins, "'The Harder They Come'," in The New York Times, Section III (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 25, 1980 (and reprinted in Books of the Times, Vol. 3, No. 10, October, 1980, pp. 511-12).

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