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Drumblair: Memories of a Jamaican Childhood

Reviewed: May 28, 2004
By: Rachel Manley
Publisher: Vintage Canada
418 pages, $17.95

Rachel Manley grew up with her grandparents, Norman and Edna Manley, in Jamaica, surrounded by the ferment of politics and art that had to be the result of such an upbringing. Norman was a major figure in Jamaican politics (the father of his country, some might say) and Edna was a renowned sculptress . Rachel's father, Michael, was busy in the union movement, and would later move on to politics in spite of having spent years trying to avoid following in his father's footsteps.

This book presents a child's eye view of the momentous events which shaped and were shaped by the members of the extended Manley family, who seemed able to battle each other on both sides of just about every issue that was of any importance at all. It is not a history, or a biography as such; instead it is a personal reflection about the lives of the people who were so important in her early life. It is a celebration of their lives, especially that of Norman, or Pardi, as she called him, and it is also a summing up and a letting go.

Young Rachel was raised in a hothouse of intellectual and nationalistic activity, much of which was well beyond her understanding at the time. Neither was it clear to her just how unusual her childhood home was. They called it Drumblair, and it is as much a character in this memoir as any of the people who inhabited it. That being so, it is annoying that there is no better photograph of the place in the book than the partially obscured one on the cover. Perhaps that was intentional. Perhaps Drumblair made so much of an impression on a child's imagination that no picture could have done it justice. From an early age it was assumed that Rachel would grow up to be a writer, though it was poetry she was supposed to be writing. She did produce three volumes of verse, and her name is mentioned in connection with various collections of Caribbean poetry, but when I interviewed her a couple of years ago, while she was at Berton House, she played down that side of her creativity and spoke mostly of this book, it's sequel, Slipstream, and the volume yet to come. By that time, Drumblair had already won 1997 Governor General's Award for Non-fiction, and Slipstream was getting a lot of good press.

I have lingered a while over this book, reading it on and off for over a year, devouring a chapter and then setting it aside for a time. The language shows the poetic influences of Rachel's earlier work, but it also shows the struggle she had in coming to terms with all that had happened during her youth. It is a book which repays the time spent with it.

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