Guaranteed reading with intelligence

Guaranteed reading with intelligence
Guaranteed reading with intelligence

Friday, 9 August 2013

Delighting In Your Company by Blair McDowell

5 out of 5 stars

Past suffering and future bliss?

Amalie Ansett is a busy working professional who part owns an advertising agency in Los Angeles. California.  She has just suffered a painful break-up of her marriage and while cleaning her family home, which is now on the market, she discovers an unopened letter to her mother from a previously unknown cousin, Josephina Ansett.  Josephina lives on St. Clements, a small island in the Caribbean.  The letter invites Amalie and her mother, who is now deceased, to a visit on the island.  Sorely in need of a break Amalie decides to go.  Imagine her surprise when, while touring on St. Clements she learns of another Amalie Ansett, who lived in the early 1800s, and who looks remarkably like her twenty-first century descendent.  Life takes on an even stranger turn when Amalie is visited by the ghost of Jonathan Evans, the 1810 lover of the Amalie of the past.  Jonathan died in strange, unexplained circumstances and asks for Amalie’s help to solve the mystery.

Blair McDowell’s Delighting In your Company is an exciting, action packed novel of the paranormal romance/erotica genre.  Much more than this, though, the book gives a glimpse of life in the early 1800s, especially for women and slaves.  Most of all this is a novel about Amalie’s need to come to terms with her very present and very ‘real’ life problems.

McDowell’s novel has a more unusual and complex narrative structure.  There is a short introductory section, set in L.A. (Ch. 1), followed by an introduction to St. Clements and its history (Ch. 2 to Ch. 4).  Next there is a sequence of three visits to the past, each successively moving towards some kind of resolution of Jonathan’s problem.  After each visit there is a further working out, in the present, of the consequences of the stay in the past.  These three sections are: First visit and its consequences (Ch. 5 to Ch. 6); Second visit and its consequences (Ch. 7 to Ch. 9), and Third visit and its consequences (Ch. 10 to Ch. 12).  Finally there is an Epilogue which neatly wraps up and resolves both the past and present plot lines.  This more unusual plot line serves well to keep the reader interested, while at the same time allowing questions to remain open until the very end.  The three visits involve a little repetition, but are in no way boring.  Rather McDowell skilfully works in many new details, weaving more and more complexity as the novel proceeds.

Delighting In Your Company is written in omniscient narrator mode, but mainly centres on Amalie’s perspective.  There are, though, a number of shifts to Jonathan’s perspective, and that of other characters.  The novel contains a number of surprise plot twists and “Oh my God!” chapter endings.  There is also some humour, especially in the early part of the book, including a “hair-raising” drive from the St. Clements airport, chauffeured by Andrew, Josephina’s half-blind, hired hand (Ch. 2).  There is also here and there a touch of irony to remind us of the bitter truth of life’s suffering.  All of this goes to make an interesting and well written text with plenty of stylistic flair.  It should be noted that sex is quite openly depicted in the novel and that this may offend conservative readers.  While it containing erotic elements the novel is not pure erotica.

McDowell’s ‘good’ characters are suitably likable, though most not perfectly so, and we relate to them even though many come from a past, unfamiliar time.  Amalie is a capable woman, but in emotional need.  Josephina, at 80 years old, is suitably wise and motherly, though perhaps a little “fey” (Ch. 3).  Jonathan is caring and kind, but is certainly to some extent trapped in the male bigotry of his era.  McDowell’s ‘bad’ characters, chiefly Charles Benstone the 1800s “Island Administrator” (Ch. 2), is suitably dastardly, though as a point of criticism he is perhaps slightly too evil to be ‘real’.  Perhaps just a bit more insight into his history and motivations could have made him more rounded.  The name Amalie is a variation of the name Amelia, which itself is a blending of Emilia and Amalia (Patrick Hanks & Flavia Hodges.  A Concise Dictionary of First Names: Third ed.: Oxford University Press, 2001, p. 10).  Emilia means “rival” (Hanks, p. 79) and Amalia means “work” (Hanks, p. 10).  Amalie finds that her past counterpart is in many ways a competitor for the affections of Jonathan, and certainly has much labour set out for her in solving the mystery of the past.  Jonathan means “God has given” (Hanks, p.131) and he has certainly been blessed with wealth and position, though this name has some irony as those are the very possessions which he seems to have been stripped of.  Josephina means “God shall add (another … [child])”  (Hanks, p. 132) and she indeed acquires a ‘daughter’ in the form of Amalie.

The novel very much resolves around the theme of possession.  How firmly do we hold our land or place in society?  Should one person ever ‘own’ another (slavery)?  More broadly are we free to think beyond our culture, or are we trapped in it, ‘possessed’ by it?  We all surrender a little of our ‘control’ to others, whether we like it or not, but surely the human spirit reaches for the maximum freedom pragmatically available?  In another direction we as free individuals often choose to co-operate, and this indeed is a theme relevant to Western culture, and perhaps particularly to U.S. society.  We value frontier individuality, but much of the ‘West” was won by teams of people working together.  In modern society the 1960’s marked the beginning of the ‘I” culture, but as Rollo May has pointed out in Freedom and Destiny (W.W. Norton, c1981) we have the restraint of responsibility to others on us, and beyond this history has shown that we truly achieve by co-operation (Robin Dunbar, Louise Barrett & John Lycett. Evolutionary Psychology: A Beginner’s Guide: Oneworld, c2007, Ch. 11).  What are the limits of the hard headed U.S. individualist?  Indeed they can achieve much, but at what cost?  Finally open-mindedness is an important theme which builds upon the last two mentioned.  To see beyond what our society tells us about possession and individuality we must have an open mind or we are forever subject to ‘enculturation’, trapped.  Are other cultures religious beliefs completely foolish?  Are we doomed to repeat our history by the rigid bounds of the society we are ‘constructed’ in, matured in?  Are psychic phenomena completely foolish as we are likely to say in a ‘pat,’ off-hand way, or are there possibilities beyond our experience?

The female characters in Delighting In Your Company are virtually all capable women who enjoy a challenge and have skills to meet it.  Amalie and her business partner, Lorna Cummings, were “two women in a class of twenty men” (Ch. 1), but never-the-less they graduated from the UCLA with business degrees.  “They watched and commiserated with each other as less competent men were promoted over them,” but in the end set up their own “L.A. advertising agency”.  “Lana’s support through all these circumstances and more very much reminds us of the second wave feminist’s “consciousness-raising” rap groups in which they shared their experiences, successes and failures, and gave each other support (Cathia Jenainati.  Introducing Feminism: Icon Books, c2010, p. 81, 95, 102).  Josephina proves more wise than “fey” (Ch. 3).  Amalie of the 1800s is “no shrinking violet” (Ch. 5).  She was a “tomboy” (Ch. 5) as a child.  She swims and rides horses like a man and is a very forward lover.  Gustavia Graham, a descendent of St. Clement’s slaves, administers the Island museum by herself.   Elvirna Jones, one of Josephina’s employees proves savvy to the goings on of St. Clement’s society. Even Jemma and Krishia, slaves though they are, show their worth as loving, caring individuals where they could easily be haters and betrayers.  The position of women of the 1800s as ‘protected” (Ch. 7) individuals who should not worry their “pretty little heads” (Ch. 5) about important matters is very much portrayed, with considerable condemning comment from Amalie.  But even the position of post second wave feminist women is examined.  In chapter 1 Amalie reveals that she sees herself as “mousy” and “over-weight”, though Lorna strongly denies this.  This whole conversation is highly ironic as Amalie has fallen victim to the very myth perpetrated by the advertising business.  We immediately think of Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth (William Morrow, 1991).  In general Feminists will enjoy this novel as a work looking at both past injustices, present achievements and present difficulties.  As we have observed even the history and current position of African descent women is looked at.

Following from Feminism, those interested in Gender Studies will find the depiction of Jonathan worth examination.  As a man of the early 1800s Jonathan’s view of women in some ways quite fits the bigoted attitude towards women of his time.  When Amalie tries to inform him of the shady business deal her father has got himself entrapped in Jonathan doubts her word very much and insists that he will sort the whole issue out himself by discussing the matter man to man (Ch. 10). Jonathan must be gently “persuaded” (Ch. 10) to listen to Amalie.  On the other hand Jonathan is very much a non-stereotypical, caring man.  He is in many ways very tender with Amalie.  He also cares very much for the slaves on his plantation.  In this time of transition from slavery to freedom (1810) he is the only plantation owner on the island experimenting with new crops which are less labour intensive and involve much more humane working conditions.  He secretly plans to free his slaves.  Samuel, Jonathan’s freed African descent companion, is also a caring man.  Having seen and experienced the cruelty of the slave system he has every right to be vengeful and aggressive, but he is very much above this kind of macho behaviour: instead he is a man of deep thought and caring, as well as action.  Benstone, on the other hand is the epitome of 1800’s male bigotry and stereotype, being motivated by power, and a female dominator to boot.

Gay characters are completely absent from the novel.  This is an unfortunate oversight in a book dealing so much with the notion of typed roles, exclusion and rebellion.

The aged are of course represented by the 85 year old Josephina who is depicted as having a wise understanding of life, in all its complexity and strangeness, and a loving, caring and open personality.  The absent characters of Amalie’s mother and father are also described as being caring people who supported their daughter with affection, a listening ear and wise advice (Ch. 1).  Of course not all of the aged are wise and caring, but it is excellent to see this often overlooked, and frequently demeaned, group depicted positively.

The idea of wealth verses personal fulfilment is prominent in the novel and this notion will quite appeal to those interested in the Marxism/Capitalism debate.  Marx was very much interested in “the relationships between individuals and the society they lived in” (Gill Hand. Understanding Marx: Hodder Education, 2011, p. 67), and in allowing people to reach the full potential they are capable of.  Early in the story Brett, Amalie’s ex-husband, is revealed to be only interested in Amalie for the social connections her family offers: connections to wealth and success.  Benstone also is interested in ”conquest” (Ch. 6) in all its various forms.  The “Hollywood Hills” lifestyle (Ch. 1) is contrasted with the quieter, but more personally fulfilling, existence of St. Clements.  Marx of course was very much interested in the evils of, and the countering of, Colonialism (Hand, p.44-46), and Delighting In Your Company very much deals critically with the suffering of slaves, and the drive for money and power, in the British Colonial Caribbean.

As we have just said, Dowell’s novel spends a considerable amount of time looking at English colonialism and its implications.  The part of the world depicted in the book, both in the present and in the past, is not post-colonial.  In the present Josephina is a white land owner, with African descent employees, sitting in her, certainly much faded, but not past estate.  The Island museum enshrines only colonial history.  There are no African descent items on display, and certainly no archaeological items from the original, indigenous Caribbean occupants.  In the past Colonialism is of course very live and well.  This colonial ethos, however, certainly does not go unquestioned or uncriticised: far from it.  In her first tour of the museum, for example, Amalie is struck by the harsh conditions of the cook house, where the slaves worked, with its very low roof and no windows, thus trapping the heat of the oven (Ch. 2).  In the past the horrors of the “boiling house” (Ch. 4), where the sugar cane is cooked is even more graphically described.  As has been noted many of the African descent characters are positively portrayed.  As one further example Edward Sloan, Josephina’s lawyer, is of African descent and is quite prosperous and successful.  The African Obeah religion is in many ways positively represented, and the negative qualities are compared with the adverse qualities of Christianity.  The novel could be criticised for weaving a ‘mystical’ aura around the Caribbean in a similar way that Edward Said noted the West romanticises the East (Orientalism: Vintage Books, 1979).  Much of this mystery, however, comes from the shifting, multi-cultured circumstance of the narrative, which is very much in line with Post-Colonial Theory (Peter Barry. Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary And Cultural Theory: Third Ed.: Manchester University Press, 2009, p. 189-190).  St. Clements is in the Caribbean, but is part English /  part African, and the island is visited by an American.  We freely move through these cultures and through time, none of which is represented as perfect, and none of which is unfairly condemned.

Structuralists, particularly those influence by Levi-Strauss (Mary Klages. Literary Theory: A Guide For The Perplexed: Continuum, 2006, p. 42-43), will observe that McDowell’s novel includes a number of paired characters.  The complimentary pairs are: Amalie of the present/Amalie of the 1800s, Amalie (both present and past)/Jonathan, Amalie/Josephina and Brett/Benstone.  The opposing pairs are Amalie/Brett and Amalie/Benstone.  The novel very much revolves around a good/bad dichotomy which is quite marked.  As we have observed the ‘good’ characters are rounded, having faults, but Benstone is very much the arch villain.  As we have also seen there is a man/woman dichotomy and s slave/master opposition, though these tend to reconcile, in a more Postmodern fashion, as the book progresses.

Postmodernists, influenced by Jacques Derrida, will note that white/upper-class/male is the centre of the system of the 1800’s, as depicted in the novel, and that, as we have just said above, this centre becomes destabilized as the plot progresses (Klages, p. 55-60).  Giving details would of course spoil the book.

Delighting In Your Company very much depicts Jacques Lacan’s idea of the “Other” (Lionel Bailly. Lacan: A Beginner’s Guide: Oneworld, 2009, Ch. 7).  We all desire ‘something’ which we feel is missing in our life and which is possessed by, and can be fulfilled by another person.  According to Lacan the sense of the Other can never completely be fulfilled, and indeed McDowell has interestingly depicted the Other as a ghost, a real yet unreal, ephemeral thing.  The novel can be read as a symbolic therapeutic journey:  a suffering woman who has lost her parents and husband goes to an island to find answers from the past to resolve her current circumstances.  The ocean can be a symbol of the consciousness, of “our psychic depths” (Kathleen Martin, ed. The Book Of Symbols: Reflections On Archetypal Images: Taschen, c2010, p. 36) and indeed, one way or another Amalie must delve into her psyche to resolve issues regarding her parents, divorce and rushed business life.  The ocean also has mother/creative-force aspects (C. G. Jung. Symbols Of Transformation: An Analysis Of The Prelude To A Case Of Schizophrenia: second ed.: Princeton University Press, 1967, p. 217-219), and interestingly on St. Clements Amalie finds a mother figure.  Ghosts can refer to “unfinished business,” specifically “unresolved grief and persistent attachment,” and “tender ghosts … return to console” (Martin, p. 788).  Jonathan could very much be said to comfort Amalie in her time of need.  Much of the story revolves around the need for a key to a safe.  For Freud the key is a sexual symbol (Sigmund Freud. The Interpretation Of Dreams: Penguin Books, 1976, p. 471) and indeed sex and sexual need is fairly prominent in the plot.  More broadly the lock and key is symbolic of “transformation,” as something that “will give access to the object of longing – self-discovery, peace of mind, the enigmatic heart of the beloved” (Martin, p. 562).  McDowell’s novel is indeed a depiction of a search for these longed for matters.

As it has paranormal content McDowell’s novel very much lends itself to mythological interpretation.  As we have seen the plot contains an Amalie of the present and ‘twin’ Amalie of 1810.  As Claude Levi-Strauss points out in his essay ‘Harelips And Twins: The Splitting Of a Myth” (Myth And Meaning: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978, p. 24-33) twins, in American indigenous culture, are often depicted as rivals, and indeed in McDowell’s book both women are competitors for Jonathan’s affections.  In astrology “Gemini represents a search for self through the mental process …” (Kim Farnell. Astrology: New Illustrated: Starfire, 2002, p. 86)  In the Northern Hemisphere this sign falls at the seasonal time of year when “more light is being shed on this world so that it can be seen, contemplated and understood in its myriad expression” (Farnell, p. 86).  As we have just seen in the preceding paragraph the novel can be seen as a therapeutic journey.  Gemini is ruled by the planet Mercury, the servant of the Gods (Farnell, p. 86) and Amalie finds herself called to solve a kind of “cosmic error” (Ch. 7).  For those born under Gemini “life’s different options can be identified” (Nicholas Campion. Zodiac: Enhance Your Life Through Astrology: Quadrille, c2000, p. 49) and “fresh possibilities” are explored.  In McDowell’s novel Amalie must try several different solutions before she is successful.  Gemini is sometimes represented as a couple (Campion, p. 53) and Amalie and Jonathan, both blond haired characters, must together work to restore order to the past.

Continuing on with the mythological aspects of McDowell’s novel it can be noted that the tarot card of The Devil is relevant to the book.  As we have noted, Benstone is depicted as a quite malicious person, with no redeeming features.  He manifests throughout the book as an arch enemy and evildoer.  Sallie Nichols in her analysis of this tarot card notes that the Devil is known for “arrogance and pride,” that he has “too much ambition,” that he has “charm and considerable influence,” and that “Temptation … [is] … his specialty” (Jung And Tarot: An Archetypal Journey: Samuel Weiser, 1980, p. 261).  This is Benstone to a T.  He uses his position of Island Administrator to charm Amalie’s father into a very lucrative, but very shady deal.  He is puffed up with his own power, intelligence and conceit.  Further Nichols notes of the devil that he is known for “temper tantrums and … vengeance” (Nichols, p, 262), and indeed Amalie encounters exactly this behaviour when she moves to cross Benstone.  Waite, in his commentary on The Devil card notes that it represents those “fallen into the material and animal state” (Arthur Edward Waite. The Pictorial Key To The Tarot: Being Fragments Of A Secret Tradition Under The Veil Of Divination: U.S. Games Systems, c1971, p. 135), and indeed Benstone is motivated by money and power, and prone to rather animal emotions.   The traditional Marseilles Deck shows to characters, perhaps one male and one female (they are ambiguous), chained to the alter on which the Devil stands.  In the early twentieth century Waite Deck these figures are definitely man and woman.  Amalie of the past and Jonathan are unwitting, and apparently inextricably, trapped in Benstone’s mesh of intrigue and deceit.  Even Amalie of the present  finds it extremely difficult to break the chains which bind those two characters to disaster.

In her commentary Nichols notes that the psychological state represented by The Devil card connects to that of the next card, The Tower (Nichols, p, 287), and indeed this second card is also relevant to McDowell’s novel.  The Tower depicts a small, stone keep struck by flames/lightening with two people falling from its walls.  Nichols notes that these two people “are being thrown from a position of lofty security into one of exposure and confusion” (Nichols, p.283).  Amalie and Jonathan of the past are certainly thrown from their colonial positions of privilege and certainty, and Jonathan’s mansion will literally go up in flames.  In a broader sense Crowley, in his commentary on the card, notes that it represents “destruction of the old-established Aeon” (The Book Of Thoth: A Short Essay On The Tarot Of The Egyptians: Samuel Weiser, 1974, p. 107).  As we have seen Delighting In Your Company very much has to do with slavery, Colonialism and the end of these systems.  Nichols notes that in order to break from the state of the card the individual must break free of “rigid system” (Nichols, p. 285).  Jonathan, as we have seen, is experimenting with new crops, different from the tried and tested, but cruel, Colonial crop of sugar cane.

Blair McDowell’s Delighting In Your Company is a novel of considerable complexity and depth of thought, dealing with issues that will interest those fascinated with Feminism, Post-Colonial Theory and Marxism.  The psychological aspects of the book are also intriguing, particularly in terms of the depiction of the therapeutic journey.  On one level the novel can be read for the pure pleasure of paranormal romance, but on another level it will give the reader much to think about.  It is certainly not a dry scholarly tome; indeed, this is an exciting and very enjoyable read.  This novel also has much to say about ordinary human experience, touching on issues of possession, co-operation and open-mindedness.  Most of all this is a book about the search for human fulfilment.  I am happy to rate this book as 5 out of 5 stars.

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