There’s nothing really wrong with a book in which two characters sit and talk for almost its entire length about almost everything but the subject at hand. Many fine plays have revolved around this very concept. But in Austin Clarke’s The Polished Hoe, the two main characters dance around each other for more than 400 pages. Add the length to the fact that the topic they’re avoiding discussing is a murder, and you eventually start to wish that they would get on with it already.
Hoe takes place on the West Indian island of Bimshire, and the two people having the conversation are Percy, a police sergeant called “Sargeant” by most who know him, and Mary-Mathilda, a worker on a sugar plantation who has just killed Mr. Belfeels, the plantation’s manager. Mary-Mathilda was also Belfeels’ mistress and the mother of his only son, who, in turn, is the town’s most respected doctor. Percy, secretly in love with Mary-Mathilda for most of his life, is called to Mary-Mathilda’s home to take her statement about the murder. Of course, his feelings, coupled with the fact that Mary-Mathilda is one of the most respected women on the island, complicate things from the outset.
But Mary-Mathilda doesn’t make things easier on him. Instead of straight-out telling the whole story of the murder, she slyly begins telling stories about the island’s history, her childhood, her relationship with Belfeels, music, American politics and almost everything under the sun. Worried about how Mary-Mathilda’s crime will affect the island but unwilling to let the conversation end because of his unrequited love, Percy lets her go on and encourages her. The whole thing leads to a resolution of the feelings between the two characters and a revelation about the murder that likely won’t come as a great shock.
The concept is intriguing, but I would have like to have actually seen the relationship between Mary-Mathilda and Belfeels instead of only hearing about it second-hand. In fact, the idea of hearing about most of the book’s major relationships and plot points second-hand in conversation robs them of much of their power.
The Polished Hoe isn’t a bad book, but a little less talking and a little more action could have made it much more interesting.