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Posted July 4, 2013
Julia Blackburn has written a biography or a memoir if you will about the paternal side of her family that goes back as far as her great grandfather. But this is not a conventional, genealogically straight-forward biography. The author swoops in and out of her father and grand-father’s lives through dreams and nightmares, mentally visiting rooms within a large ethereal house each connected by long white corridors. In each room she encounters a place in time inhabited by her ancestors. The author becomes a part of her ancestor’s lives as if by some form of bilocation. While in this fantastical state of bilocation she interacts most often with her grandfather (whose name we are never privy to), the dark-skinned son of a white missionary and his son, Eliel, the author’s father. On the island of Praslin, one of the smaller islands of the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean, the white missionary is busy trying to stamp out copulation while simultaneously trying to deny the colour of his own act of copulation. The Missionary’s dark-skinned wife is cursed by a witchdoctor and she and her son flee to the island of Mauritius to try and hide or outrun the witchdoctor’s curse. Julia Blackburn’s father arrives In England aged eighteen having been trained as an Anglican Priest on Mauritius but the curse appears to have followed him over the ocean.
The book is not an easy read. The subject matter is unsettling; racism, self loathing and mental illness, and the writing style has a surreal texture to it. However, if you want an easy read there are plenty of celebrity biographies out there to satiate your appetite.
The book is laid out in a series of short chapters with an average of five pages per chapter. It is said that we have an average of six dreams per night within an eight hour sleep. The short chapters reflect that dream state. They allow the reader to end the dream or nightmare with the close of a chapter. The short chapters allow you reflect and cogitate what you have just read before moving on to the next chapter/dream.
As with any surreal style of art, symbolism features rather heavily. There is a lot of looking out of windows, standing at windows, looking at one’s reflection in windows. There is a barely a chapter that doesn’t mention the act of shaking; the Grandfather shakes, the grandfather’s friend shakes uncontrollably, the author’s father shakes and trembles at various times through the book, Uncle Julius the missionary’s brother shakes Eliel by the shoulders when greeting him and zombies shake themselves free from the ground.
This prevalent image of shaking is not simply a symbol of the fear that the every character in the book feels quite palpably but is symbolic of one of the thematic motifs that run through the book, a curse. The grandfather states that curses are “very hard to shake off”. The curse placed on the author’s grandmother appears to follow the family down through the generations culminating in the Eliel’s mental illness in his fifties.
Here is Ms Blackburn’s strength. Her ability through her rich, layered unpretentious writing has the twenty first century reader believing in witchdoctor curses by the end of the book. Like the curse, racist attitudes rear their ugly head throughout the book. But thankfully the author never lectures or gives an opinion on said racist attitudes. She simply lays out the truth of the matter and allows the reader to find their own feelings regarding this issue. This is rendered in a beautifully, understated passage that has Eliel being handed a book by his new teacher Mr Swann. In the book are the names of local families that are black but like to be thought of as white.
Julia Blackburn’s seemingly effortless style is at times beguiling and thought provoking. In the wrong hands The Book of Colour could have quite easily have became polemical and sentimental. The author has allowed the reader a peek into her ancestor’s lives and I believe it is just that, a peek. One can assume that there is so much more behind Julia Blackburn’s biographical curtains pertaining to her family. My only criticism is that the reader is left wondering what became of some of the people within the book; Eliel’s mother who suffered because of mental illness, Evalina Larose, relative or servant, and most importantly Eliel’s father who stayed behind on the island of Praslin. I have so many questions but so few answers. However, it may well be that the author does not have all the answers. It is a small criticism over-shadowed by my admiration and recommendation.