Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Roy Heath has been given little attention in books about Caribbean writers. He moved away from his homeland and has lived in England since 1951, returning to Guiana only for occasional visits; thus, many books about Caribbean writers do not even mention his name in a footnote. He is considered by many critics to be a British writer rather than a Caribbean writer.

Those critics who have discussed Heath’s books invariably note that he is more concerned with the past than the future and with the individual than society. He is often called an “expatriate” author, and his harshest critics say that he does not truly understand the problems of his native land because he has been away from it for so long. He has been accused of lacking social conscience and national and racial identity.

Heath’s situation gives him a broader perspective than is available to writers who are immersed in a single familiar environment. He can be usefully compared to Henry James and Vladimir Nabokov, two great novelists who suffered by being cut off from their roots but whose suffering gave them a deeper understanding and tolerance than was exhibited by many of their stay-at-home contemporaries.

The Shadow Bride is generally considered to be Heath’s best novel. It is an important work that avoids giving easy answers to problems of race relations and personal alienation. Instead of offering salvation through politics or religion, the novel places the burden of existence upon each individual. Heath is too intelligent a writer to believe, or to attempt to convince his readers, that the enormous problems of his native land can be solved overnight by any quick fix. Through his protagonist, Betta Singh, he shows that the only hope for the future can be found in the patient, diligent, self-sacrificing dedication of many such intelligent individuals. He does not cast blame, even on the brutal colonial exploiters of the East Indian workers; he recognizes that human beings are complex mixtures of good and bad.