Summary

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Like most of Roy Heath’s novels, The Shadow Bride deals with the disintegration of a single character. In this case that character is Mrs. Singh, a woman born in India but brought to British Guiana as a bride when still an adolescent. The novel’s title suggests that Mrs. Singh has left part of herself back in India and remains a “shadow” of herself throughout her life. She symbolizes the problems of all East Indian immigrants living in Guiana, and in a certain sense she symbolizes all first-generation immigrants everywhere, including Heath himself.

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The protagonist of the novel is not Mrs. Singh but her son Betta, who has been studying medicine in England. Contrary to his mother’s wishes, he goes to work as a government official supervising the health of workers on a big colonial estate that is engaged in the business of growing sugar cane for export. The time is the 1930’s, and the country is still under British rule. Such estates played a major part in Guiana’s history because the British imported large numbers of indentured workers from India to do the backbreaking, poorly paid labor in the fields. The East Indians became the dominant racial group in Guiana, which is the reason Heath, himself of African descent, is writing about them.

The British overseers were as heartless in their treatment of the indentured workers as the slave owners in the Deep South of the United States were to their slaves before the Civil War. The biggest scourge in Guiana was malaria, which was transmitted by mosquitoes and not well understood at that time. Betta is appalled at the living and working conditions of the people he is called upon to treat, but he quickly runs afoul of the overseers when he tries to hospitalize men who are obviously too sick to work under the equatorial sun. An attempt is made on Betta’s life by thugs acting on orders from the estate’s top management. By this time, Betta is married and has a child; he quits his post because he does not want to endanger his family.

When Betta tries to move back into his mother’s house with his family, he finds that the gates have been padlocked to keep them out. His mother has fallen under the influence of a holy man of the traditional Hindu faith who, under the guise of teaching her to free herself from worldly attachments, is actually destroying her relationships with relatives and friends.

While Betta struggles to build a medical practice and support a growing family without his mother’s assistance, she becomes a helpless thrall to the Pujaree, who eventually becomes her husband and lord and master of her household. At last she realizes what has happened to her and manages to evict her hateful husband, only to fall into the hands of Sukrum, a loathsome household servant with no religious pretensions whatever. When Sukrum tries to assert his complete dominance by raping Mrs. Singh, she accepts the final humiliation of running back to her son and the daughter-in-law she has repeatedly scorned. She begins to lose her mind completely, and finally she frees her son and daughter-in-law of her demanding, disruptive presence by committing suicide.

Bibliography

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Boxill, Anthony. “Penetrating the Hinterland: Roy Heath’s Guyana Trilogy.” World Literature Written in English 29, no. 1 (1989): 103-110. A mainly favorable evaluation of Heath’s novels From the Heat of the Day (1979), One Generation (1981), and Genetha (1981). Boxill discusses Heath’s life and work, pointing out that Heath has never been especially interested in race relations, Guianese nationalism, the colonial heritage, or the search for a unique West Indian identity, all of which are characteristics of most Caribbean literature.

Dasenbrock, Reed Way. Review of The Shadow Bride. World Literature Today 63, no. 1 (Winter, 1989): 151-152. Gives a brief history of the settlement of Guiana and calls Heath’s novel “the epic of malaria” because this dreaded scourge of the tropics is central to The Shadow Bride. Compares the book to V. S. Naipaul’s classic Caribbean novel of “creolization,” A House for Mr. Biswas (1961).

Heath, Roy. Shadows Round the Moon: A Caribbean Childhood. London: William Collins Sons, 1990. The author relates the story of his early life in what was then British Guinea. His personal history is interwoven with many amusing anecdotes about his multiracial homeland under colonial rule.

Jaggi, Maya. “Promising Secrets.” The Times Literary Supplement, September 14, 1990, 979. A review of Shadows Round the Moon. Jaggi points out some of the autobiographical elements that found expression in fictional form in such works as The Shadow Bride.

McWatt, Mark A. “Roy A. K. Heath.” Fifty Caribbean Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook, edited by Daryl Cumber Dance. New York: Greenwood Press, 1986. An informative discussion of Heath’s life and work, highlighting his ambiguous position as an expatriate.

Rosenberg, Leah Reade. Nationalism and the Formation of Caribbean Literature. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Examination of the relationship between nationhood, national identity, and Caribbean literature. Crucial for understanding both Heath’s writing itself and the reasons for its habitual exclusion from the Caribbean canon.

Rubin, Merle. “A Marriage Tie That Binds.” The Christian Science Monitor, February 17, 1993, 15. A review of the American edition of Heath’s From the Heat of the Day, originally published in Britain in 1979. Focuses on the complexities of marital relationships and praises Heath for his refusal to provide simple solutions to his characters’ complex family problems, many of which are taken up again in The Shadow Bride.

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