No Telephone to Heaven

by Michelle Cliff

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As is the case with all great works of literature, in No Telephone to Heaven, style and content are perfectly wedded. The novel’s structure moves back and forth in time, from here to there in place, but not in an orderly fashion as in a nineteenth century historical novel; rather, little or no transition is provided between events occurring in different places and times, imparting a sense of randomness and chaos to the lives depicted. This is the author’s intention. Clare is unable to establish an identity, to locate herself in a political and economic power structure that too often considers her, her gender, and her race only marginally valuable at best and at worst expendable, a nuisance to be eliminated as surely as Clare and her fellow guerillas are slaughtered in the novel’s apocalyptic conclusion. Closer analysis shows that the events are not at all random. Each scene, each character in some way comments on the world’s condition or offers a possible option for Clare in her life.

Clare’s grandmother, for example, is present only in Clare’s memory, yet she is a crucial point of reference for Clare and the reader. It was the grandmother who owned the country estate that Clare fondly recalls visiting in her childhood. Yet the grandmother and her estate are more than just a happy remembrance; they represent a time when a woman—and a black woman at that—could own property, be an important part of the economic power structure of her society, and thereby have control over her own destiny. The laws in the present do not expressly forbid such independence; rather, as a poor, Third World country exploited by the industrialized world, Jamaica finds itself subservient, virtually helpless. Within Jamaican society, the dark-skinned are subservient to the lighter-skinned, and women are the most subservient of all. The author makes it clear that the situation has worsened over time. The grandmother’s once-vital estate is, as the title of the first chapter indicates, “ruinate”: It has fallen into disuse and is being reclaimed by nature.

Clare recognizes this condition, to her shock and despair, when she visits the estate for the first time in her adulthood. In the novel’s confused chronology, this scene takes place late in the work, but it provides a partial explanation for why, in the first chapter, the reader finds Clare with the guerillas. To maintain themselves, they work the estate, reclaiming it from its ruinate condition and reestablishing their independence—or so they hope. Instead they are ambushed, slaughtered, and at the very end Cliff leaves the reader with only the cries of the jungle beasts. All is ruinate.

Between this hopeful beginning and apocalyptic end, Clare struggles to find herself amid the confusion of her life. One option that presents itself is flight, the option embraced by her father, an otherwise intelligent black man who desires a better life so intensely that he can blind himself to the bigotry surrounding them in their new destination, the United States. His betrayal of the dignity of his race is dramatized in a scene in which he feigns being white in order to avoid confrontation with a Southern racist. His name, Boy, symbolizes what his identity will always be in his new home. Kitty, Clare’s mother, cannot long subject herself to such indignities, and she returns to Jamaica, hence offering another option for Clare.

Returning to her abject homeland, however, solves nothing for Clare. Once again flight seems the best option, and she leaves for England to pursue her graduate studies. Her first impression of England is far from promising: black women...

(This entire section contains 766 words.)

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cleaning the toilets in Heathrow Airport. While in England, she meets Bobby, an African American Vietnam War veteran who represents yet another alternative for Clare: emotional capitulation, rootless wandering, and despair.

This is the thematic and emotional nadir of the novel. Clare’s return to Jamaica is compared to her ancestors’ arrival as slaves, yet the reader senses the possibility of something affirmative: Clare is starting over, fresh, and she can make of herself what she wishes. The character who offers this last, best alternative is Harriet (originally Harry, then Harry/Harriet), who has committed herself to a gender identity of her own choosing. Clare chooses to cast her lot as a teacher of the young, a farmer reclaiming her grandmother’s ruinate estate, and a guerilla fighting the forces of oppression. That she is slaughtered in the ambush at the end does not entirely negate the triumph of her struggle toward identity and commitment.