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The Polished Hoe: A Book Review Print E-mail
Written by Nigel Thomas PhD   
Thursday, 16 August 2012 15:40

On November 5, 2002, Austin Clarke won the Giller Fiction Prize for his latest novel The Polished Hoe. Clarke’s first novel, Survivors of the Crossing, was published in 1964. From the very beginning his work was highly praised, but recognition in Canada eluded him. Not until 1997 and his twentieth book, The Origin of Waves, which won the Rogers Communications Writers’ Trust Award, changed things significantly for him. In 1999, he won the W. O. Mitchell Prize, which is given annually to a Canadian who has produced an outstanding body of work and served as a mentor for other writers. The Question, his novel published in 2000, was shortlisted for the Governor-General Award.

Clarke is the author of some twenty-plus books, including ten novels, several collections of short stories, an autobiography, a culinary memoir, a collection of poems, and several essays on social issues. Half of his novels and about a third of his stories are set in Barbados, sometimes called Bimshire, the name by which Barbadians affectionately call their island.

According to Clarke’s biographer, Stella Algoo-Baksh, Clarke led a penurious existence during the early years of writing. Clarke takes every opportunity he can to let the public know that without the support of his wife Betty during those lean years, his writing career might have foundered. Although at various times, he held positions as lecturer or writer-in-residence at many prestigious universities, and freelanced for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, not to mention his being cultural attaché at the Barbadian embassy in Washington and later director of culture in Barbados, Clarke’s inability to play the institutional game of winking at injustice—racial in Canada and the US, political and social in Barbados—made him an unwelcome presence. Moreover, these positions restricted what he wanted to do most: to write.  At one point he became involved with the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party, thinking, naively, he now says, that he could change the system from within. For a few years in the early 1990s he was a refugee court judge.

Anyone familiar with Clarke’s corpus knows from Growing up Stupid under the Union Jack, Clarke’s autobiography which covers his life up to Harrison College, that Clarke’s books set in Barbados are profoundly informed by his personal experiences and the issues affecting Barbadians while he came of age there. The Meeting Point, Storm of Fortune, and The Bigger Light, referred to as The Toronto Trilogy, were until the books by Dionne Brand, Nourbese Philip, Makeda Silvera, Cecil Foster, Althea Prince and myself, the only fictional exploration of West Indian immigrant life in Canada.

Turning to The Polished Hoe, it is Clarke’s fourth novel set in the Barbados communities of Flagstaff and St. Matthias (The fifth novel with a Barbadian setting, The Prime Minister, is a political satire with disguised settings and altered place names).   In fact, much as one gets to know Alice Munro’s Jubilee or Margaret Laurence’s Manawaka or Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha from several works, so one gets to know these communities and their characters, many of whom, like Manny, Golbourne and Sarge, a central character in The Polished Hoe, recur. Even Clarke’s use of religion as a class designator is constant throughout all four novels: Whites, generally members of the planter class, the Black middle class, and aspiring middle class are Anglicans, all others, field-hands and domestics mostly, are Nazarenes, Pilgrim Holiness or Spiritual Baptists.  These novels function like a series of canvasses, each of which highlights a different feature of the same terrain. Undoubtedly, The Polished Hoe is the most engaging of the four, but it could be argued that knowledge of the other three enriches our understanding of The Polished Hoe, although it quite clearly stands on its own.

Early reviewers of this novel called it a historical novel, and in large measure they are correct. What this novel lays bare are the lies that have muddied West Indian history. For a long time we have believed that virulent forms of post-slavery behaviour were largely confined to the United States of America and South Africa. Clarke employs the story of Mary Gertrude Mathilda Paul’s “enslavement” to the plantation manager Bellfeels, and to a lesser extent Sarge’s story, to counter such a belief.

The story is told over an entire Sunday evening and night and finishes at dawn; it begins in darkness so to speak and ends in light. It is presented primarily through the conversation and interaction between the two characters: Mary Mathilda, the protagonist, and Percy Stuart, known to all as Sarge, as well as through flashbacks occurring in their minds when the conversation lulls. This interaction occurs shortly after Mary Mathilda kills Mr. Bellfeels, her lover since she was thirteen (she is now 54 and her age seems to correspond to the first half of the twentieth century) and father of her son Wilberforce, a doctor of tropical medicine. Mr. Bellfeels, the manager of Flagstaff plantation and the antagonist of the story, is omnipresent, if only because much of the conversation is about him; moreover, even if both characters know that he is dead, the conditioned fear his brutal, tyrannical acts have instilled in Sarge and Mary Mathilda inhibit for a very long time their interaction over the course of the evening and night. We learn too that Sarge and Mary Mathilda have always been in love with each other, and it takes Mary Mathilda’s killing of Mr. Bellfeels for them consummate their passion.

The motive for the killing is clearly stated in the following except:

"Mr. Bellfeels took her [Mary-Matilda] as his right, in his natural arrogance of ownership . . . “If it wasn’t you, Mary-girl” Ma told her, “it would be somebody else daughter. And even though it is what it is I still feel more better to see you is getting some o’ the sweets that goes along with it. . .” Ma had told Mary-Mathilda this two years after she had introduced Mary-girl to Mr. Bellfeels that Sunday morning in the Church Yard, when he towered over her from the saddle of his horse.

Mr. Bellfeels had had Ma too, for years; “taking what he want”; and their affair; no, not affair, for it could not be called that, since there was no bargaining power on her part" (426).

Eighteen pages later she reiterates this fact:

“It was common practice on plantations in Bimshire for a Plantation Manager to breed any woman he rested his two eyes on. As many as he could climb."

“And so it was with me. And with Ma. And with Ma’s mother, until we get far-far-far back, get back on the ships leaving Africa. . .” (444).

We are told that when Mr. Bellfeels wanted sex with Ma, he would wink at her where she was working with the rest of the gang and she would have to comply immediately, otherwise she would receive a flogging. When Ma attempts to tell Bellfeels that Mary-Mathilda is his daughter he whips her to prevent her from completing the statement, and threatens her with death should she ever bring up the subject again.

And Mr. Bellfeels, who is metonymy for the Bimshire plantocracy, can kill whomever he wishes, for the plantocracy is the law, as Sarge vaguely knows but fully learns when Mary-Mathilda takes him down into the secret tunnel that is entered from within the great house where Mary-Matilda is installed as Mr. Bellfeels’ mistress. She shows him where those who defied the plantocracy were taken and beaten and often killed; where the plantocrats, not the courts, decided the fates of those who defied them. We learn that the vicar, Reverend Dowd, a white Englishman, had more power in determining the fates of revolters than the courts, and his intervention could change the way in which the revolters were killed: enclosed in cement and dumped into the sea, for example, as opposed to being tossed alive into shark-infested waters.

Moreover, the tyrannical abuse of their workers by the plantocrats set the example for all those who had some power. Mary-Mathilda puts it succinctly:

"I am talking about a time, when any one of them, driver, overseer, bookkeeper, manager, any one of the four o’ them, even the man-leader of the field gang, anybody in the scheme of things, in a more higher position, could grab your hand, and lead in a canefield; pull down your bloomers, put you to lay-down on a pile o’ cane trash; and after he unbutton his fly, and pull out his dickey . . . he could lay down on you, bam-bam-bam! . . .

That is the history of life on a plantation. In this island. On any plantation in Bimshire!. I am not talking fiction, Sargeant" (104).

This claim resonates in the story of Brannford, whose wife the governor loved and who had to stay outside his home whenever the governor was “visiting” her, usually on a Saturday, until one day he had had enough and slit his wife’s throat. That he didn’t suffer for it was due to the fact that the plantocracy was at odds with the governor. Even so, we are led to believe that his wife’s relationship with the governor was imposed; therefore she is twice victimized.

Along with the abuse of power, Clarke indicts the educational system here as he does in his autobiography Growing up Stupid under the Union Jack. While he shows us Wilberforce, Mary-Mathilda and Bellfeels’s brilliant son, liberating his mother through the books he makes available to her and through the information he provides her from his travels, Mary-Mathilda articulates the ways in which his British education makes him overvalue what’s European and undervalue what’s Antillean. It is quite likely that Clarke expects us to read into Wilberforce’s name the fact that William Wilberforce, for whom he is named, was both a liberator and a racist, for this is a book intended to correct much of the romanticized history of the Caribbean. Clarke goes to great lengths, for example, to show how the planters of Bimshire likened events taking place there to events in the US. Moreover, he shows us that the people of Mary-Mathilda’s generation were programmed to see the US as a land of freedom even while the most vicious form of bigotry was being enacted there.

Clarke uses his physical spaces (settings) effectively. Whether it is the Anglican Church vis-à-vis the others, or the plantation house vis-à-vis the workers’s shacks, or the special drinking room in Manny’s Harlem Bar and Grill, or inside and outside the grounds of the Marine Hotel or the Crane Beach Hotel—each locale is a signifer of race or class caste. Sarge could not go to Mary-Mathilda’s house while Mr. Bellfeels was alive, not even if he were conducting a criminal investigation. Golbourne, the only non-white but the best cricketer on the Flagstaff team, could not eat with any of the players, even those he had defeated; his race precluded that. Occasionally such space becomes highly symbolic. When Mary-Mathilda takes Sarge down into the tunnel, he then learns much about the “underground” legal system of which, although he is a senior police officer, he has no knowledge. When Mary-Mathilda seduces Sarge into having sex with her in the North Field, where Mr. Bellfeels had many times had her and her mother, she is proclaiming her freedom from Bellfeels, who would have killed her and any man she might have had sex with and disposed of their bodies without fear of prosecution.

This novel begins with Sarge’s going to Mary-Mathilda’s house to take a statement about her killing Mr. Bellfeels. What in essence it turns out to be is Mr. Bellfeels’ trial by Mary-Mathilda and Sarge. And since Mr. Bellfeels represents the plantocracy, it too is tried. As Sarge states, there is no one in Flagstaff who would not like to see Mr. Bellfeels killed. Mary-Mathilda does so with the hoe she has been obsessively polishing for decades. The act liberates her from Mr. Bellfeels’s sexual imprisonment, and it avenges all those whom Bellfeels wronged. The Polished Hoe is driven by a fierce moral energy. It focuses our gaze on an ugly aspect of Caribbean reality which many of us have been unwilling to examine.

[The Polished Hoe is the winner of the Commonwealth Writers Prize, Canada′s Giller Prize and Ontario′s Trillium Book Award.  The Canadian director Dawn Wilkinson is currently working on the TV adaptation of The Polished Hoe]

The book is available on www.amazon.com, .ca or www.barnesandnoble.com.

Critical Praises for The Polished Hoe:

"This novel, by a Canadian writer born in Barbados, explores the brutality of plantation life, not as it was experienced in the fields but in the subtler cruelties inflicted on a worker named Mary, who, as a girl, catches the manager's eye and then becomes his favored mistress and the mother of his only son. Forced into a life of loveless "fooping" but also one of material comfort and privilege, Mary is separated both from her own people and from the white establishment, and spends decades in her "home-prison" contemplating the "ritual and arrangement of life on the Plantation." With an obvious affection for Caribbean cadence and its rum-soaked asides, Clarke unfolds Mary's story through the meandering statement she gives to the police after she has taken gruesome revenge on her "master" using the hoe of the title, the very tool that his attentions enabled her to drop." (The New Yorker)

“The beauty of the novel...lies in the poetry of its telling and the marvelous voice of Mary-Mathilda...a marvelous creation. It bubbles with the voices of a now-vast literature of the African diaspora.” (Washington Post Book World )

“Lyrical...seductive...hypnotic....In this politically engaged novel, we are reminded that when it comes to colonialism, one never comes to any sort of final understanding.” (Houston Chronicle )

“[An] eloquent, richly detailed novel . . . .[that] unfolds through brilliantly written dialogue.” (Publishers Weekly )

“Clarke’s waltzing speech rhythms and sly humor, reminiscent of V. S. Naipaul...[contribute] to a Wagnerian crescendo.” (Boston Globe )

“The story will captivate readers.” (Daily Oklahoman )

“Endlessly fascinating...creatively executed....[The Polished Hoe] is certain to be met with critical acclaim in the U.S.” (Booklist )

“Uncommonly talented, Clarke sees deeply, and transmits his visions and perceptions so skillfully that reading him is an adventure.” (Publishers Weekly )

“Magnificent. . . The Polished Hoe oozes unrequited love and seduction under duress.” (San Antonio Express-News)

“A well-crafted novel.” (Austin American-Statesman )

“If the literary gods are feeling fair, Clarke will now receive attention from U.S. readers.” (Fort Worth Star-Telegram )

“Mesmerizing....steeped in slavery, colonialism, and sexual exploitation.” (New York Times Book Review )

Austin Clarke's Bibliography


The Survivors of the Crossing (1964)
Amongst Thistles and Thorns (1965)
The Meeting Point (1967)
Storm of Fortune (1973)
The Bigger Light (1975)
The Prime Minister (1977)
Proud Empires (1988)
The Origin of Waves (1997, winner of the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize)
The Question (1999, nominated for a Governor General's Award)
The Polished Hoe (2002, winner of the Giller Prize and the Commonwealth Writers Prize)
More (2008)

Short stories

When He Was Free and Young and He Used to Wear Silks (1971)
When Women Rule (1985)
Nine Men Who Laughed (1986)
In This City (1992)
There Are No Elders (1993)
Choosing His Coffin (2003)


Growing Up Stupid Under the Union Jack (1980)
Public Enemies: Police Violence and Black Youth (1992)
A Passage Back Home: A Personal Reminiscence of Samuel Selvon (1994)
Pigtails 'n' Breadfruit (1999)
A Stranger In A Strange Land

Selected awards and honours

1992, Toronto Arts Award for Lifetime Achievement in Literature
1997, Lifetime Achievement Award from Frontier College in Toronto
1998, Member of the Order of Canada
1999, Martin Luther King Junior Award for Excellence in Writing
2002, Giller Prize, for The Polished Hoe
2003, Commonwealth Writers Prize
2009, Toronto Book Award, for More



About the author of this article : Dr. H. Nigel Thomas was born in Saint Vincent and immigrated to Canada in 1968. At age ten, he knew he wanted to be a teacher. He went to Concordia University and McGill University. He earned a B.A. in 1974 and an M.A. in 1975 with a Diploma in Secondary Education in 1976. He pursued later doctoral studies at l’Université de Montréal and got his Ph.D in 1986. In 1988 Dr. Thomas began a career as assistant professor of U.S. literature at Université Laval and held the rank of Professeur titulaire when he retired in 2006 to devote himself to writing full-time. Hence, Dr. Thomas is an eloquent retired professor of American literature and is an associate editor of Kola, a literary magazine. He has published short fiction and poems in magazines and anthologies such as From Folklore to Fiction. He can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it and the readers can visit his official website www.hnigelthomas.org.