A Room on the Hill Summary
A Room on the Hill opens a few days after the funeral of John Lestrade’s mother, Lena. It is the second death for John in a relatively short span of time; two years before, his best friend Stephen drowned while he stood helplessly on the beach, unable to muster the courage to attempt a rescue. Since then, John has been punishing himself by abandoning his plans for seven years of study in Canada, and he has rejected his mother’s sympathy so totally that he is now troubled by the idea that this may have contributed to her death.
On his way from the chapel through the town to his own place in some old barracks, which is indeed a “room on the hill,” John experiences a series of flashbacks. His recollections introduce the reader to the adventures of a group of young colored men and women on an island in the West Indies, united by their dreams and plans for a better future. In the case of the young men, this involves studying abroad in England or Canada; for their female companions, the future holds more limited prospects and the danger of losing their fiances, a fate that is shared by Miriam Dezauzay and Anne-Marie D’aubain.
Unable to sleep after his walk, John, through his memory, “exhume[s] corpses of his old self, probing them with the scalpel of his new awareness, lifting his motives delicately out of their integuments to look at them.” Into his mind comes his relationship with Rose, a young woman from Grenada. Because he had wanted to keep his freedom before leaving for university, he had rejected Rose after their second encounter and first lovemaking. This memory brings John’s thoughts to Stephen, who insisted that it was worth postponing education for one’s fiancee but not for anything else. Stephen himself was forced to stay in St. Lucia, since his father had squandered the savings that would have enabled him to become an engineer and leave something permanent behind him.
With the arrival of Harold Montague and, with him, Stephen’s farewell letter, John learns that his friend actually committed suicide. This brings about a crisis of conscience for John, who agrees with French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre that “people are hell.” He begins to understand that he has not felt sorry for Stephen, but has been angry with him for revealing his own cowardice in the face of an emergency. Living with this new consciousness makes John resume an old habit—heavy drinking on weekends. In the first climax of the novel, the intoxicated John radically denounces the island’s population as “bloody clowns. All of us,” who fill the emptiness of their existence with the imitations of English and American life-styles (cricket and big band music).
The sudden death of Agnita, whom he met in a nightclub the day before, sharpens John’s understanding of the influence the acts of other people exert on his life, as well as the impact of his actions on the lives of others. As he reconsiders Stephen’s suicide as an act of rebellion rather than of despair, he persuades himself that no death should shock him anymore. He resolves that nobody “should have the right to leave him marked by [their] death.”
John’s spiritual struggle is echoed in the story of Anne-Marie. Her father, deformed old D’aubain, with his “near-white face, . . . was no reformer, social or otherwise. He had wanted to spare his daughter” and used his exalted social position to conceal Anne-Marie’s familial status, which would have forced her to wear the second-class school uniform reserved for bastards. Once she discovers the lies surrounding the circumstances of her birth, however, the young woman destroys her own former uniform—the lie itself a symbolic uniform—and experiences a radical “greater disintegration, more gradual, of the entire fabric of her previous existence.” Like John, she suffers a second blow, which comes in the form of Derek Charles’s solicitous desertion: While studying abroad, he has made an English girl pregnant and feels duty-bound to marry her. With every system of order around her collapsing, Anne-Marie feels drawn toward the nonconformist drunken painter Dennys, whose “refusal to conform even while he seemed headed for certain social disaster, fascinated her.”
Not surprisingly, John’s new resolution is tested when Anne-Marie, after a celebratory party for Derek’s homecoming, is killed in an accident caused by the drunken driving of her new lover Dennys. In a funeral procession which in its almost surrealistic style is reminiscent of the treatment of such events in Latin American fiction, Anne-Marie is buried without the Catholic Church’s approval but in the same cemetery where John’s mother was laid to rest at the beginning of the novel.