RETURN TO ARCADIA, by H. Nigel Thomas, is
a Caribbean-Canadian novel that deals with racial and class identities,
homosexuality and psychological trauma. The story’s setting is divided
among Montreal, the fictional Caribbean island of Isabella, and to
lesser extents London, Madrid and Paris.
The land and people of Isabella, which
is also a setting in Thomas’s other two novels, form sharp images in the
reader’s mind. Subjective description is perhaps Thomas’s forte as a
writer. For instance, he is very convincing in capturing the way the
protagonist would recall scenes from childhood. The author also has a
particular knack for describing faces and often for capturing speech
patterns, in major and minor characters alike.
Thomas, in an interview, says that
Return to Arcadia is intended to explore a hitherto unwritten
dimension of Isabella Island’s society. "I am looking at what
constitutes mental illness and how one gets out of it. Also, (the novel)
focuses on a group of characters or a segment of Caribbean society that
so far I hadn’t focused on: the powerful plantocrats (plantation-owning
class), who controlled about 90 per cent of the arable land in St.
Thomas’s native St. Vincent, he adds,
is the primary inspiration for Isabella Island.
Return to Arcadia’s
protagonist, Joshua, is an amnesiac who awakes in the psychiatric ward
of Douglas Hospital, Montreal. Throughout the novel, he recalls his past
— or sometimes hallucinates about it — as he struggles to reach a
psychological resolution. Ultimately, with the aid of modern medicine
and ancestral spirituality, he finds stability and attempts to
reintegrate into his maternal culture.
The author’s interest in psychology is
more than passing. Thomas studied psychiatric nursing in 1970 and then
for six years he worked in Douglas Hospital. During his last year, he
worked with child patients, in whom he saw the devastating formative
effects that psychological trauma can have.
"I certainly believe," Thomas
reflects, "that people are shaped by the forces that acted upon them, in
much the same way as water on limestone. . . . The challenge, then,
becomes how to live with the effects of that shaping."
Not surprisingly, then, the specifics
of Joshua’s life and mental illness seem to reflect a deterministic
premise. The narrative suggests that the character’s unresolved
formative experiences explain, if not dictate, his behaviour. For
instance, Joshua discovers he is a masochist, a condition which (in this
literary representation) is analogous to feelings of guilt and blame
that he has harboured since youth. As soon as Joshua starts to unburden
himself of this guilt and blame, he ceases to engage in masochism.
Similarly, Joshua is sexually exploited as a young teenager and as an
adult he becomes an exploiter, buying sadomasochistic sex. However, he
stops this behaviour too once he forgives himself and others for the
For readers who hold a less
rationalistic view of human experience and behaviour or just less faith
in psychiatric therapy, some of Joshua’s transformations might be hard
Even before struggling with his
sexuality, Joshua has endured another psychological dilemma of concealed
paternity, attempted infanticide, interracial adoption, sibling
separation and parasitic wealth. Without revealing further plot details,
it is safe to say that Joshua’s early years are laden with even more
traumas and reversals than the average fictional childhood.
Thomas, who taught modern American
literature at Laval, says that his novel’s structure owes a debt to
American authors such as William Faulkner, Toni Morrison and Toni Cade
Bambara. Like these novelists, Thomas makes extensive use of flashbacks
and stream-of-consciousness narration. Another commonality between
Return to Arcadia and the works of Faulkner and Morrison is an apparent
fascination with portraying larger-than-life, dysfunctional families.
Like Faulkner, Thomas is also
fascinated with Shakespearean symbolism. Joshua and his
stream-of-consciousness narrator allude several times to the characters
Prospero (the sorcerer) and Caliban (Prospero’s monstrous slave) from
Shakespeare’s The Tempest. "The Tempest is really about colonization,"
says Thomas, echoing an idea that dates back at least as far as 1968,
when French author Aimé Césaire wrote Une Tempête, a post-colonial
reconstruction of Shakespeare’s play.
Return to Arcadia, then,
bundles and reworks quite a lot of older concepts and motifs from
established psychology and literature. The downside of this approach is
that Joshua sometimes seems more like a funnel for ideas than a
fleshed-out individual who attempts to act upon them. Joshua’s thoughts
of redemption are many, yet his redeeming actions are few, even when he
faces no apparent obstacle.
For instance, as a young man, Joshua
inherits a fortune and makes a note to help impoverished acquaintances
from his past. For almost 30 years, he neglects to do so. Then, he seems
surprised to find that his surviving acquaintances are still
The scenario is a hard one, for author
and reader alike. What would Hamlet do if he outlived his major
antagonists (his major benefactors, too) and received practically
unlimited material means? Sink into a contemplative void, before
eventually emerging to seek a simpler life in friendship with the common
Joshua does seek such an answer, even
though most of Isabellan society violently reviles homosexuality and
thus forces him to be discrete. Can such an environment be conducive to
Joshua’s psychological convalescence? Common ancestry seems to trump
cosmopolitan tolerance in Thomas’s construction of the character’s
"Like my protagonist," Thomas says, "I
don’t think there is a perfect society anywhere. Societies more or less
respond to our needs and there will always be those needs that our
societies will not fully cater to but it comes as part of the
Return to Arcadia comes as part
of a territory too. Thomas’s previous two novels, Spirits in the Dark
and Behind the Face of Winter, follow the same patterns of recollection
and self-reconciliation. They also address psychological questions about
ancestry and sexuality. Long years of study at McGill precede a
self-confrontation for both Joshua and the protagonist of Behind the
Face of Winter. A grassroots spiritual guide plays an important role in
the conclusions of both Return to Arcadia and Spirits in the Dark.
Thomas has a unique descriptive style
and, in the form of Isabella Island, an elaborate, compelling setting
and social context for his novels. He does, however, inherit a lot of
baggage in terms of structure and concepts. By the end of Return to
Arcadia, whether the reader finds the protagonist’s behaviour
convincing hinges on acceptance or rejection of a very specific set of
psychoanalytical premises — largely, the ones set forth by Joshua’s
doctors. Regardless, some of this novel’s influences and its author’s
talents render it distinct within the realm of Caribbean-Canadian
literature, except for parallels with Thomas’s previous work.
— Joseph Howse