The Polished Hoe

The Polished Hoe

by Austin Clarke

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When Mary-Mathilda, one of the most respected women on the colonized island of Bimshire (also known as Barbados), calls the police to confess to a crime, the result is a shattering all-night vigil. She claims the crime is against Mr. Belfeels, the powerful manager of the sugar plantation that dominates the villagers' lives and for whom she has worked for more than


When Mary-Mathilda, one of the most respected women on the colonized island of Bimshire (also known as Barbados), calls the police to confess to a crime, the result is a shattering all-night vigil. She claims the crime is against Mr. Belfeels, the powerful manager of the sugar plantation that dominates the villagers' lives and for whom she has worked for more than thirty years as a field laborer, kitchen help, and maid. She was also Mr. Belfeels's mistress, kept in good financial status in the Great House of the plantation, and the mother of his only son, Wilberforce, a successful doctor, who after living abroad returns to the island.

Set in the period following World War II, The Polished Hoe unravels over the course of twenty-four hours but spans the lifetime of one woman and the collective experience of a society characterized by slavery. Infused with Joycean overtones, this remarkable novel -- winner of the 2002 Giller Prize, the Commonwealth Writers Prize Best Book Award, Canada and Caribbean region; and a bestseller in Canada -- evokes the power of memory and the indomitable strength of the human spirit.

Editorial Reviews

The New Yorker
This novel, by a Canadian writer born in Barbados, explores the brutality of plantation life, not as it was experienced in the fields but in the subtler cruelties inflicted on a worker named Mary, who, as a girl, catches the manager's eye and then becomes his favored mistress and the mother of his only son. Forced into a life of loveless "fooping" but also one of material comfort and privilege, Mary is separated both from her own people and from the white establishment, and spends decades in her home-prison contemplating the "ritual and arrangement of life on the Plantation." With an obvious affection for Caribbean cadence and its rum-soaked asides, Clarke unfolds Mary's story through the meandering statement she gives to the police after she has taken gruesome revenge on her "master" using the hoe of the title, the very tool that his attentions enabled her to drop.
The New York Times
The question of Mary-Mathilda's guilt seems moot by the novel's end. Out of a single act of retribution, Clarke has in fact spun an entire history, one in which freedom, love and even languor all have their place. — Ihsan Taylor
The Washington Post
The beauty of the novel, which won Canada's Giller Prize for 2002, lies in the poetry of its telling and the marvelous voice of Mary-Mathilda. The value of the novel lies in its patient exploration of the sacrifices that are made for the sake of survival, in its careful investigation of how ordinary people must negotiate a system whose rewards depend upon the cowardice and complicity of an entire society, in how exploitation becomes ingrained in the institutions of the culture, in the depiction of slavery's true legacy -- the tragedies of how we do go on … Miss Mary-Mathilda is both a pleasure and a frightening force to contemplate. — Opal Moore
Library Journal
Barbados-born Clarke's ninth novel, which earned him the 2002 Giller Prize (Canada's premier fiction prize) and the 2003 Commonwealth Writers Prize, is a tragic, complex story of postcolonial Barbadian life following World War II. Oppression still flourishes on Bimshire, an island controlled by "the Plantation," where women like Miss Bellfeels are basically chattel. Miss Bellfeels, known to the villagers as Mary-Mathilda, eventually escapes the toil of field labor and housework. But as the kept woman of Mr. Bellfeels, the powerful plantation manager, she is not accepted into the island's upper echelon. Her status isolates her from common folk like Sgt. Percy Stuart, her childhood friend. The 24-hour saga begins after Mary has murdered Mr. Bellfeels and Percy must record her all-night confession, an obligation complicated by his lifelong love for Mary. Through Mary's memories and thoughts, Clarke deftly reveals an abominable state of sexual oppression and racist tyranny and the revenge both can invoke. Highly recommended. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 2/15/03.]-Faye A. Chadwell, Univ. of Oregon Libs., Eugene Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The sexual exploitation of poor black women in the British Caribbean--in a rambling, plotless tale (winner of the Giller Prize) from Clarke, a veteran West Indian writer/academic/diplomat. The colony is the author’s own Barbados (here called Bimshire), and the period is post-WWII. Mary-Mathilda is a middle-aged black woman who lives in a spacious house on the sugar plantation, where she was installed by the almost-white plantation manager Bellfeels, who lives nearby with his wife and daughters. Bellfeels’s "Outside-Woman," Mary started out, like her mother, as a fieldhand, and her fate was decided one Sunday in a churchyard when Bellfeels noticed her ripening into puberty and felt her up and down with his riding-crop, the prelude to his raping her during a church picnic, just as he had once done to her mother. For all her present material comforts, Mary has never forgotten that riding-crop, and she has been readying her old hoe for her mission of retribution and sacrifice. The story spans just a few hours on a Sunday night, when Mary summons the Sergeant to make a Statement. Has she murdered Bellfeels? The Sergeant doesn’t want to know, for Mary is a powerful woman who could end his career, and, besides he has lusted after her since childhood. So there will be no Statement, disappointing the reader who might have been expecting a modicum of suspense. Instead, the pair exchange memories of life in Bimshire. What emerges is a scorching indictment of the island’s power elite, who have connived at rape (including Mary’s) and murder, disposing of bodies and spiriting away criminals. Still, this bleak picture is warmed and softened by Clarke’s celebration of Bimshire life: its foods, plants,rum shops, and the fortitude of its regular folks as they laugh and curse in cadences that Clarke catches so expertly. We are left with a memorable landscape of oppression but a problematic central figure. Is Mary now a militant champion of women’s rights? No way to know.
Washington Post Book World
“The beauty of the novel...lies in the poetry of its telling and the marvelous voice of Mary-Mathilda...a marvelous creation. It bubbles with the voices of a now-vast literature of the African diaspora.”
Houston Chronicle
“Lyrical...seductive...hypnotic....In this politically engaged novel, we are reminded that when it comes to colonialism, one never comes to any sort of final understanding.”
Boston Globe
“Clarke’s waltzing speech rhythms and sly humor, reminiscent of V. S. Naipaul...[contribute] to a Wagnerian crescendo.”
Daily Oklahoman
“The story will captivate readers.”
“Endlessly fascinating...creatively executed....[The Polished Hoe] is certain to be met with critical acclaim in the U.S.”
San Antonio Express-News
“Magnificent. . . The Polished Hoe oozes unrequited love and seduction under duress.”
Austin American-Statesman
“A well-crafted novel.”
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
“If the literary gods are feeling fair, Clarke will now receive attention from U.S. readers.”
New York Times Book Review
“Mesmerizing....steeped in slavery, colonialism, and sexual exploitation.”

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers Australia
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.20(w) x 7.72(h) x 1.30(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Polished Hoe

By Austin Clarke

Harper Collins Publishers

Copyright © 2003 Austin Clarke All right reserved. ISBN: 0060555653

Chapter One

"My name is mary. People in this Village call me Mary-Mathilda. Or, Tilda, for short. To my mother I was Mary-girl. My names I am christen with are Mary Gertrude Mathilda, but I don't use Gertrude, because my maid has the same name. My surname that people 'bout-here uses, is either Paul, or Bellfeels, depending who you speak to . . ."

"Everybody in Flagstaff Village knows you as Miss Bellfeels, ma'am," the Constable says. "And they respects you."

"Nevertheless, Bellfeels is not the name I want attach to this Statement that I giving you . . ."

"I will write-down that, ma'am, as you tell it to me. But . . ."

"This Sunday evening," she says, interrupting him, "a little earlier, round seven o'clock, I walked outta here, taking the track through the valley; past the two stables converted into a cottage; past the sheep pens and the goat pens, and fowl coops; and through the grove of fruit trees until I came to the Front-Road, walking between two fields of canes. In total darkness. But I knew the way, like the back of my two hands. Now, where we are in this Great House is the extremity of the Plantation Houses, meaning the furtherest away from the Main House, with six other houses, intervening. These consist of the house the Bookkeeper occupies; one for theOverseer, Mr. Lawrence Burkhart, who we call the Driver - that's the smallest house; one for the Assistant Manager, a Englishman, which is the third biggest after the Main House; and there is a lil hut for the watchman, Watchie; and then there is this Great House where we are. The Main House have three floors, to look over the entire estate of the Plantation, like a tower in a castle. To spy on everybody. Every-other house has two floors. Like this one. That would give you, in case you never been so close to this Plantation before, the lay of the land and of things; the division of work and of household."

"I sees this Plantation only from a distance, ma'am. I know it from a distance only," the Constable says.

"It was dark, and I couldn't see even my two hands outstretch in front of me. I took the way from here, right through the valley where the track cuts through it. I could make out the canes on both sides of me; and I could hear them shaking, as there was a steady wind the whole evening; the kind of wind that comes just before a heavy downpour of rain, like before a hurricane. They were 'arrows' shooting-out from the tops of canes. Crop-Season, as you well-know, is in full swing; and the Factory grinding canes, day and night. You could smell the crack-liquor, the fresh cane juice, strong-strong! What a sweet, but sickening smell cane juice is, when you smell it from near!

"Wilberforce, my son, who was home earlier, is my witness to the hour I left . . .

"Have I told you about Wilberforce, yet? No? Pardon me. The memory is fading, Constable, the memory. The mind not sharp no more, and . . . very often . . . What was I telling you about?"

"You was talking about y son, Mr. Wilberforce, the doctor, ma'am."

"Yes! Wilberforce! My first-born. He isn't really the first of my thrildren I give birth to. He's the one outta the three who lived-past childbirth.

"Wilberforce, always with his head always inside a book, I keep telling him that with all that book-learning retain in his head, if he's not careful, he going burst his blasted brains!

"He, I gave birth to, in the year nineteen . . . I told you that, didn't I?"

"You didn't tell me when Mr. Wilberforce born, ma'am."

"Nevertheless. Two more thrildren I had. A boy and a girl. I gave them the names I intended to christen them with, if they had-live. William Henry. Two names I took from a English magazine. And Rachelle Sarah Prudence, the girl. Lovely English names I named my two dead thrildren with. One died eighteen months after the first one. The boy.

"My third-born, Wilberforce, became therefore my first-born. A mother's pride and joy.

"Wilberforce went to the best schools in this Island of Bimshire. Then overseas. He travel to countries like Italy, France, Austria and Europe; and when he return-back here to this Island, he start behaving more like a European than somebody born here. But, at least, he came back with his ambition fulfill. A Doctor. Of Tropical Medicines.

"Whereas, had the other two thrildren survive, I wanted them to follow in the path of the Law. They would have made such lovely barsters-at-Law! You don't think so?"

"Yes, ma'am," the Constable says.

"My sweet boy-child, William Henry; and lovely Rachelle Sarah Prudence, the girl.

"Yes, Constable. Me. I, Mary-Mathilda . . . I, Mary Gertrude Mathilda, alth Gertrude, as I told you . . ."

"Yes, ma'am."

". . . left inside-here at seven o' clock this evening, and walked the four hundred and something yards from here to the Plantation Main House, and it take me fifteen minutes time to arrive there; and . . ."

"Which night you mean, ma'am, when you left your residence of abode?"

"Which night I took the walk? Was it Saturday night, last night, or tonight Sunday night, is what you getting at?"

"I mean that, too, ma'am. But what I really getting at, is if the moon was shining when you leff your home and place of abode, on the night in question, walking to your destination? Or if you was walking in the rain. 'Cause with rain, I have to refer to footsteps. They bound to be footprints . . ."

"If there are footsteps, those would be my prints in the ground, Constable. Bold and strong and deep-deep; deep-enough for water to collect in them. Deep-enough to match the temperriment I was in. I can tell you that my determination was strong.

"It was dark-dark, earlier tonight. But in that darkness, I was not hiding from anybody. Not from the Law; not from God; not from my conscience, as I walked in the valley of the shadow of darkness and of death. No. There was no moon. But I was not a thief, craving the darkness, and dodging from detection. Oh, no!

"A long time ago, before tonight, I decided to stop walking in darkness.

"With that temperriment and determination of mind, I first-started, on a regular basis, to polish my hoe. And to pass a grinding-stone dip in car-grease, along the blade, since September the fifteenth last-gone; September, October, November just-pass, is three months; and every day for those months, night after night as God send, more than I can call-to-mind. And I have to laugh, why, all-of-sudden, I went back to a hoe, I had-first-used when I was a girl, working in the cane fields, not quite eight years of age. The same hoe, weeding young canes, sweet potato slips, 'eight-weeks' yams, eddoes, all those ground provisions.

"This hoe that I used all those years, in the North Field, is the same hoe I used this Sunday night.

"If it wasn't so black outside, you could look through that window you sitting beside, and see the North Field I refer to, vast and green and thick with sugar cane, stretching for acres and acres, beyond the reach of your eyes, unmeasuring as the sea . . .

"So, no, Constable. I was not seeking the shadows of night, even though the moon wasn't shining!

"I already stated to you that at seven o'clock, the hour in question, it was like a full moon was shining, by which I mean, as the saying in this Village goes, a full-moon alters the way men behave - and women, too! - turns them into lunatics, and - "

"Pardon me, ma'am. But on the telephone to the sub-station, in your perlimary Statement to Sargeant, Sargeant say that you say the night was dark, and no moon wasn't shining. Is so, Sargeant tell me to write down your Statement, in my notebook, using your exact words. So, I hope that I not stating now, in-front-'o-you, what you didn't state, nor intend to state, in your telephone Statement, ma'am?

"Sargeant send me to get your Statement offa you before he come himself. All we know is what you say when you call, that something happen, and you want Sargeant to come, and take your Statement, first-hand, from you. We don't know what happ and we don't yet know what is the circumstances. Sargeant would look after that. He say to say he have another important assignment. I am consequently here until Sargeant comes. But Sargeant coming . . ."

"Soon, I hope."

"Sargeant soon will be here."

". . . and so, what I mean by a bright night and the moon shining, is merely a comparison of my disposition towards darkness and light; something, as Wilberforce calls it, like the ironies of life. Ironies. He uses it all the time, and would say, 'Sitting down
to eat food is full of ironies.' 'Life is full of ironies.' 'A full
moon is full of ironies.' That is Wilberforce favourite word for it. Ironies.

"When there is a full moon, people behave strange. But tonight, with no moon at all, my behaviour was still strange, granted.

"Tonight, a Sunday, in spite of no moon, the act that I committed, however the people in this Island wish to label it, is not a act, or behaviour of a woman ruled by a full moon; nor of a woman who chooses darkness over light, to move in, or to hide her act in.

"My footprints that you say might be evidence, was, in the darkness, strong footprints, if not stronger even than my temperriment itself. And my act went along with that. I was determined. And deliberate. Because I knew what my cause was. And I had a cause."

The lights dip from their brilliance; and for just one second, it is dark in the front-house, where they are; dark, as when, long ago, the wind would run through these same windows, and brush aside the flames from the mantles of the large acetylene lamps that have Home Sweet Home printed in white letters on their polished lampshades. Just for one moment, that moment that it takes for a mouse the same colour as the carpet to steal into a corner.

But wind cannot play those tricks with the electric lighting. The two bulbs hang low, just above their heads, from two long, ugly brown electrical wires, on which, during the day, and especially late at night, flies and other bugs make their homes, and their graves; and are stuck to death.

The wind continues pushing itself through the windows, and brings on its breath the smell of flowers, poinsettia and lady- of-the-night and the strong smell of sugar-cane juice from the
Factory. And the lingering intoxicating smell of burnt sugar canes; and the pungency of burnt cane trash, comes into the front-house with them . . .


Excerpted from The Polished Hoe by Austin Clarke
Copyright © 2003 by Austin Clarke
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Meet the Author

Austin Clarke is a professor of literature and has taught at Yale, Brandeis, Williams, Duke, and the Universities of Texas and Indiana. He assisted in setting up a Black Studies program at Yale in 1968, after which he became the cultural attaché of the Embassy of Barbados in Washington, D.C. Culminating with the international success of The Polished Hoe, which won the Giller Prize, the Commonwealth Writers' Prize, and the Trillium Prize, Austin Clarke's work since 1964 includes eleven novels, six short-story collections, and four memoirs. He lives in Toronto.

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