The novel begins with a reference to the white people closing ranks: ‘They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did. But we were not in their ranks.’ The first-person narrator (as yet unnamed, but is called Antoinette) continues and explains that the Jamaican ladies had never approved of her mother. Her mother is the second wife of Antoinette’s father and was thought to be too young and ‘worse still, a Martinique girl’. When she asks her mother why visitors never come, she is told that the road to their home, the Coulibri Estate, is bad and road repairs are a thing of the past. Antoinette recalls to herself that, ‘(my father, visitors, horses, feeling safe in bed – all belonged to the past)’.
She hears her mother and her mother’s only friend, the neighbor Mr Luttrell, speak about how ‘some’ are still waiting for compensation from the English after the passing of the Emancipation Act. Mr Luttrell goes on to shoot his dog and disappears after swimming out to sea. His property, Nelson’s Rest, is left empty and Afro-Caribbean people say it is haunted.
Antoinette’s mother’s horse is poisoned and Godfrey, a servant, says how he could not watch it night and day and says to let go of the past. Her mother changes gradually and eventually she refuses to leave the house. The estate grows wild and the garden, which had been like Eden, is also overgrown. Her mother walks on the terrace and looks out to sea and sometimes people pass and laugh at her. She prefers to sit with Antoinette’s younger brother, Pierre, or walk alone. When Antoinette hears her mother speak to herself, Antoinette becomes a little afraid of her and spends most of her time in the kitchen with Christophine.
Christophine is also from Martinique and is described as being much ‘blacker’ than the other women from Jamaica. They would have nothing to do with her and she never sees her son either who works in Spanish Town. She has only one friend, Maillotte, and she is not Jamaican either. The girls who come to do the washing and cleaning are terrified of Christophine and this is why they come as she never pays them. They bring presents of fruit and vegetables and Antoinette hears low voices in the kitchen after dark.
Antoinette asks her mother about Christophine and is told Christophine was a wedding present from Antoinette’s father: ‘He thought I would be pleased with a Martinique girl.’ Her mother does not know Christophine’s age and asks if it matters. She also says Christophine stays because she wants to and they would have died if she had turned against them, which she thinks would have been better. Antoinette points out that Godfrey and Sass also stayed and her mother argues they wanted somewhere to eat and sleep and adds that Sass has gone now.
Antoinette narrates her thoughts of how she dare not look at ‘any strange negro’ and says how they hate ‘us’ and call them ‘white cockroaches’. After being called this, and being told to go away, she reaches the safety of home and sits close to the old wall in the garden and does not move. She does not want to move again as, ‘everything would be worse if I moved’. Christophine finds her when it is nearly dark and has to help her get up.
She says nothing, but the next morning Maillotte is in the kitchen with her daughter, Tia, and she and Antoinette become friends. They meet nearly every morning at the road to the river and they bathe, eat and sleep. One day she drops the new pennies Christophine has given her and Tia stares. She bets Antoinette three pennies that she cannot turn a somersault under water like she says she can. Antoinette bets all of them and comes up choking after performing one. Tia laughs and picks up the money, and Antoinette insists she did one. She calls Tia ‘a cheating nigger’ and Tia says she is poor like a beggar. She also says the following to her: ‘Old time white people nothing but white nigger now, and black nigger better than white nigger.’
Antoinette turns her back on her and is wrapped in a towel after bathing. She turns round and sees Tia has gone and taken her dress, and swapped it with her own. Antoinette returns home and on the way in her mother calls her to meet the visitors, of two young ladies and a gentleman. When they laugh, Antoinette runs away and comes to her mother after they have gone.
Analysis – Part One
This work is a prequel to Jane Eyre and whereas the original source looks to Jane and Rochester as the central figures, this one takes up the back story of Antoinette (who is Bertha in Jane Eyre). In this early part of the novel, her childhood is imagined as one of isolation and of being in exile while at home. In other words, Antoinette has no evident sense of belonging and she and her mother are shunned by almost all members of society. Here, Christophine and Mr Luttrell demonstrate some friendship but these relationships are also contaminated by the past, of slavery and emancipation.
Antoinette is depicted as coming from a family that had been wealthy, but as the ruinous state of Coulibri testifies this is now in the past. The money had come from slavery, and this is suggested in the manner that Christophine was given to Antoinette’s mother (who is referred to variously as Annette, Antoinette and Antoinetta) as a wedding present. This traffic in humans is part of Antoinette’s ancestry.