‘Death Register’: a coming-of-age novel
A Jamaican male-perspective answer to Emily Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Dwight Thompson’s first novel, Death Register, is a Bildung Romans (coming of age) story set in modern-day St James, Jamaica.
The writing is good, but at the same time, you know there is even more to come from Thompson.
Told in the flashback, or reflective method, Chauncey Knuckle, on the verge of university life, reflects on the friendship with Tristan Petgrave and the activities that led to him being the one about to enter university in Kingston and Tristan dead. In sum, Death Register, written in tribute to a friend, may very well be the necessary first book that clears the path to a fluid flow of books.
Chauncey, the budding writer and literature ace, is compelled to write Tristan’s story, which is invariably Chauncey’s story also; the story of their friendship; the coming-of-age story of some Jamaican male youth, and to a great extent, the story of Montego Bay, over a specific period.
In fact, with Death Register, Dwight Thompson took on a very important responsibility. In one stroke, he wrote the story of boys and Montego Bay in transition. Like Naipaul in A House for Mr Biswas, Thompson takes on what seems to be the autobiographical, or memoir, but gives it contextual relevance as it places it in one of Jamaica’s ‘hottest’ cities. Hot in this instance not meaning the weather.
Like Naipaul, also, there is a pervading darkness to which the boys are exposed that casts a shadow over their future. As the novel develops, we see the darkness claiming Tristan, and as the novel ends, we hope Chauncey eventually defeats or escapes the darkness.
In this excerpt, Chauncey witnesses Tristan’s death.
“It was the ease with which the policeman pulled his piece and pressed it to Tristan’s temple and fired that made me sink into a protective nothingness. I was only brought back by the residual twang of another bullet hitting the concrete. I opened my eyes, pressing my cheek to the cold ground, just to feel if I were alive. I felt an exhilarating joy, but that high didn’t last. It was replaced by exhaustion and bewildering shame. When I looked over at Tristan, his head was a mess. The policeman took up the gun, placed it in Tristan’s palm and folded his fingers over it with a graceful, deliberate motion that was almost like affection, a final rite.”
Death Register is a weighty book in its ambition and themes, also because it is a mirror of the Jamaican society, with its misogyny and growing culture of scam. It is weighty because it speaks to us and shows us how crippling childhood trauma is and how cruel we can be to each other – the adult to the child, lovers to lovers, etc. There is much in this book for critical discussion and introspection.
As Chauncey reflects, we meet both boys as children, with Chauncey living with his grandparents in Anchovy, St James, and Tristan living with his single mom, virtually next door. Chauncey’s background seems more conducive to academic success, at least since his grandmother, grandfather, and aunt do all they can to ensure he is properly fed with ‘brain food’ and provide stability in other ways. Tristan, on the other hand, almost seems doomed to suffer without Chauncey’s family’s somewhat adoption of him.
Both boys are taken under the wing of Chauncey’s grandfather, who seems a successful enough farmer.
Through this reflective-flashback method, we see defining moments in the boys’ childhood that help to shape their individual characters and their relationship. Specifically, we see the moment that may haunt Chauncey for life – the moment he saw Tristan being hurt and did nothing; the moment and supposed subsequent moments he thinks are responsible for Tristan’s life journey and tragic end.
Both boys pass their exams and are accepted into the prestigious single-sex Chester High School in Montego Bay. It is during this high school time that the boys are inculcated into a sort of transitioning into manhood ‘cult’ that involves objectifying the opposite sex and an initiation ritual of visiting the brothel during school time under the guise of a coin drive, which Thompson’s novel reminds of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.
Warning: females who never had a bigger brother or a brother at all may be shocked into numbness when you as reader witness the teenage boy talk and the treatment of girls, whether girlfriends or not, and prostitutes. That said, Death Register should be read by all Jamaican teenage girls, especially those without older brothers, or active fathers, so that they know.
Death Register condemns many of us – Jamaicans who witness abuse or ‘have an idea’ that it is occurring and do or say nothing. It condemns the family friend or church person, who betrays the trust that comes with and from a position of familiar authority. It condemns the system that encourages objectification of the opposite sex. It condemns a country that allows the homeless to be taken off the ‘tourist streets’ and dumped where they won’t be eyesores. Yes, many factual ‘MoBay’ shenanigans are included in Death Register.
As Death Register condemns, it gives hope that some individuals will find their way out of the dungeon they may be digging. Chauncey, in seeing the ogre that he was becoming, for example, started seeing a psychiatrist and seemed on track to mending his tendency to sexual cruelty.
Death Register does not paint a ‘folksy’, pastoral picture of rural Jamaica. It closely reflects Jamaica, and in particular, the jungle of charismatic characters, street dwellers, thugs of all types, including scammers that is Montego Bay, mixed in with regular Jamaican families like Chauncey’s, with their own skeletons of outside children, domestic abuse, and other issues.
Dwight Thompson is certainly a writer to follow as he further masters his craft. It would be interesting to see if he leans more towards the dark like Naipaul and Golding or if his development and awakenings take him in other directions.
Title: Death Register
Author: Dwight Thompson
Publisher: Peepal Tree Press Ltd.: 2018
ISBN 13: 9781845234072
- Ann-Margaret Lim is an author and poet. Her collection of poetry ‘Kingston Buttercup’ was among the Bocas Prize 2017 poetry shortlist. Her books are available at Bookophilia, amazon.com and peepaltreepress.com.