The Polished Hoe

By Austin Clarke
Foreword by Rinaldo Walcott

The Polished Hoe
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A special 20th anniversary edition, with a new foreword by Rinaldo Walcott.

When an elderly woman calls the police to confess to a murder, the result is a shattering all-night vigil bringing together elements of the African diaspora in one epic sweep. Set on the post-colonial ... Read more


Overview

A special 20th anniversary edition, with a new foreword by Rinaldo Walcott.

When an elderly woman calls the police to confess to a murder, the result is a shattering all-night vigil bringing together elements of the African diaspora in one epic sweep. Set on the post-colonial West Indian island of Bimshire in 1952, the novel unravels over the course of twenty-four hours but spans the lifetime of one woman and the collective experience of a society informed by slavery.

As the novel opens, Mary Mathilda is giving confession to Sargeant, a police officer she has known all her life. The man she claims to have murdered is Mr. Bellfeels, the village plantation owner for whom she has worked for more than thirty years. Mary has also been Mr. Bellfeels’ mistress for most of that time and is the mother of his only son, Wilberforce, a successful doctor.

What transpires through Mary’s recollections is a deep meditation about the power of memory and the indomitable strength of the human spirit. Infused with Joycean overtones, this is a literary masterpiece that evokes the sensuality of the tropics and the tragic richness of Island culture.

First published in 2002, The Polished Hoe won the Giller Prize, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, and the Trillium Book Award.

Austin Clarke

Austin Clarke (1934 – 2016) was one of Canada’s foremost authors, whose work includes ten novels, six short-story collections, three memoirs, and two collections of poetry. He worked as a journalist, a professor, and a cultural attaché in Washington D.C., while publishing acclaimed fiction, non-fiction, and poetry.

Rinaldo Walcott

Rinaldo Walcott is a writer and professor in the Women and Gender Studies Institute at the University of Toronto. He is the author of The Long Emancipation: Moving Toward Black Freedom and On Property, which was shortlisted for the Toronto Book Award in 2021.

Excerpt

“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 the Overseer, 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 watch-man, 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 your 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, although I don’t use 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-a 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 happen 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, the thirteenth, 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 temper-riment 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 …

“From the time, way-way back, when Ma, my mother, out of need, sent me while I was still a lil girl, seven or eight, to the Plantation to work in the fields, from that time, I had a cause. And in particular from that day, when the midwife delivered Wilberforce, I have had a cause.

“And I am very sorry to have to talk this way to you, a Constable, sitting in my front-house, on a Sunday night, filling in for Sargeant, who promise me faithfully, to come later, and take my Statement.

“Incidentally, Sargeant and me, went-school together. Did you know that? He was always inquisitive. Always hunting-down answers. And lizards which he put in cigarette boxes, as coffins, to bury them. Now, we are from two different sides of the paling. But …”

“How I should write-down your name, in its official status, ma’am?”

“My name is Mary-Mathilda. My full name is Mary Gertrude Mathilda. But I drop Gertrude because of my maid. ”

“The whole Village know your names and your surnames, ma’am. And they worships you. ”

“It began, this whole thing, many-many years ago, on a Sunday. A Sunday morning, close to midday, about ten-to-twelve o’clock. We were in the Church Yard of Sin-Davids Anglican Church. Near the graves and tombs and tombstones; where they buried Englishmen and sailors from Lord Horatio Nelson’s fleet that went down in these waters.

“I remember that my shoes were burning my feet. And I had slip them off. To ease the pain. All through the sermon that the Vicar, Revern Dowd, was delivering from the pulpit, so high and powerful; above my head; high as the water tank in the Plantation Yard … I couldn’t follow one word that Vicar Dowd was talking, from so on high. His words were too big for me.

“Some words passed my ear, though. I remember that Revern Dowd had-t ake his sermon from One, Sin-Peter, three, seventeen. Whether I remember it on my own, or Ma had-remind me afterwards, Revern Dowd was saying how it is more better for a man to suffer for his well-doing, than for his evil-doing. I remember only those words, from that Sunday.

“‘It is better, if the will of God be so, that a man suffer for well-doing, than for evil-doing. ’

“Those were the words. I have walked with that text in my heart, since that Sunday. And if, right-now, you open my Bible there on that mahogany centre-table with the white crochet-cloth on it, you will see the text, mark by a palm-leaf cross from last Palm Sunday, One, Sin-Peter, three, seventeen …

“‘It is better to suffer for well-doing, than …’

“I was a lil girl, then; no more than seven or eight; in such pain from my new shoes. My new shoes weren’t purchase new, from Cave Shepherd & Sons, the Haberdasheries store down in Town. They was a pair that the youngest daughter of Mr. Bellfeels had grown outta. Hand-me-downs. Not through inheritance; but cast-aways. They were new to me, though. Mr. Bellfeels daughter, Miss Emonie, was the same size as me, in clothes and in height. But her shoes pinched like hell, because her feet were white feet; and very narrow. “That Sunday morning was in the Easter season! It was Easter Even. ”

“If you don’t mind me saying so, ma’am,” the Constable says, “Easter is the time I like best outta the whole year o’ going-church. Easter! Easter morning, with the singing of carols and psalms! ‘O, all ye beasts of the sea!’

‘Praise Him, and glorify Him, forever!’

“And the sermon does be so sweet. But long. And then, after Easter, is Easter bank holiday! And flying kites! And holding goat-races!”

“The Collect that Sunday, the morning of Easter Even … though I can’t naturally call-to-mind the entire Collect, I remember this passage: ‘… and that through the grave, and the gate of hell, we may pass to our joyful resurrection …’”

Reviews

an incredible panorama of the post-colonial experience…an impressive work by a highly accomplished Canadian author deserved of recognition indeed.

The Polished Hoe is a remarkable achievement. Its story is obviously deeply felt…

Austin Clarke's latest novel, The Polished Hoe, is that rare creation that soars above the earth to become more than the sum of its parts.

…brilliantly written dialogue, a rich, dancing patois that fills out the dimensions of the island's painful history and its complex caste system.

An unqualified masterpiece.

…extremely ambitious…compulsively readable and challenging at the same time…This is an unforgettable novel.

The Polished Hoe is a magnificent, breath-taking plunge into the secret depths of human relations…Clarke is a master at capturing the flavour and nuance of language and weaving its local intricacies into universal stories.

Wayne Grady

…a wonderful book to meander through…

An utterly extraordinary and thoroughly compelling tragedy of Shakespearean scope…stunning and heart-rending…it ought to be both widely read and deeply remembered.

There's a mesmerizing stillness to Austin Clarke's latest novel

An extraordinary tale of lust and oppression . . . a beautiful light-skinned "black" woman [is] forced by the ambition of her mother and the sexual appetite of her colonial master to live a dangerous double life as beneficiary and plaything of a society steeped in racial cruelty

Respect to Tindal Street Press for bringing to the UK this soaring and sorrowful novel of Caribbean life . . . The novel's language proves as lush, seductive - and dangerous - as its landscape

A richly crafted novel which eludes, defies categories; it is variously wistful and agonising, ironic and sensual; a tragic tale, relentlessly wrought

It's an undeniably ambitious work. ..the story unfolds over one evening--which actually spans a lifetime. .. It was long past the time when Austin Clarke should have been acknowledged as one of Canada's most important and most accomplished writers.

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