The Polished Hoe

Written by Austin Clarke
Review by Janette King

Miss Mary-Mathilda has committed a crime. As a responsible citizen of Flagstaff Village on the island of Bimshire (local slang for Barbados), she contacts the authorities to arrange to make a formal statement. But there is nothing formal about it.

Set in the 1940s, Austin Clarke’s novel (winner of Canada’s 2002 Giller Prize) consists mainly of Mary-Mathilda’s night-long confession to Crown Sergeant Percival Stuart. Friends during their childhood, they talk theoretically of murder but mostly speak about Mary-Mathilda’s coming of age and of her employer, Darnley Bellfeels, white foreman of the Flagstaff plantation and father of Mary-Mathilda’s son. Percy and Mary also discuss their long-suppressed attraction for one another.

Clarke’s finely crafted characters reveal how they see the world as much through their use of language as by the stories they tell. These are people no longer technically enslaved, yet obliged to live under a rigidly segregated system. Mary-Mathilda and Percy recall friends and other members of their community who were finally pushed to extremes by their unjust treatment or were punished severely for minor infractions. Though Mary-Mathilda seems relatively well off, set up by Bellfeels in a fine house with a servant, even she must resort to an extreme solution if she hopes to respect herself. This beautifully written novel falters only once, when reality and fantasy blur.