Book review – Down in Demerara by Mike Manson

Down In Demerara coverFelix Radstock isn’t an instantly likeable protagonist. Fumbling his way through the unfamiliarity of Guyana, the best way to describe him might be as a tropical fungus – he’ll grow on you, whether you want him to or not.

It’s 1999, and the world is anticipating an ‘end of days’ scenario courtesy of the Millennium Bug. Felix has been sent to Guyana, a South American country described as ‘culturally Caribbean’ by Wikipedia, to gather evidence on the country’s economy and, he assumes, make suggestions to improve it. He regards himself as a whizz-kid with data and numbers – seeing colours in the information that highlight patterns that could lead to solutions.

In truth, to start with, he seems a bit of a waste of space, floundering around missing his girlfriend Aurora. As he reminisces about his first meeting with his love, in Bristol Zoo’s butterfly house, she offers up the line: “You have to be still and let them get used to you.”

It’s advice that serves Felix well in his new environment. The less he complains and the more he takes in, the better people respond to him.

As Felix accepts opportunities to venture deeper into the country he’s assessing, he seems to wake up, and a new side of his personality begins to surface.

If you’ve ever spent time in a country with a rainforest, you’ll no doubt relate to the warning: “If it’s got a mouth, it’s going to bite you.” Manson captures the sense of the heat, and the itchiness, with lines sweating with empirical evidence. Likewise, he also inserts plenty of magic – including Felix’s first walk through the capital Georgetown after nightfall on his own. “After twenty minutes I felt a touch of breeze on my face and could make out the shadow of the sea-wall. As I got closer I saw the silhouette of figures walking on the rampart. I climbed the bank and in front of me was a shell-grey ocean, glittering with hundreds of flickering lights.”

For the first time we glimpse Felix’s appreciation for Guyana that bodes well for his journey deeper into the country.

Manson summons up more of this uncanny beauty when he introduces Felix to Kaieteur Falls: “The drop of the brown water tipping over the cliff and falling for hundreds of feet had a dizzying, mesmerising effect. A fine spray caused a rainbow. Way below, above the forest canopy, green parrots were gliding in the mist. To get a better view I lay on a smooth, warm crag that stuck out like a finger into the gorge. Through the rock I could sense the thrumming power of the falling water.”

In many ways this is a buddy movie where our protagonist lurches from one form of unlikely companionship to another, and a travelogue where our narrator is initially more preoccupied by his own concerns than by the landscape he’s exploring. It’s a curiously claustrophobic experience, yet one fully befitting the heat and airlessness enveloping Felix. While you inevitably gain a sense of the ‘bush’, there’s an impression of one-step remove on the whole, as Felix regards his surroundings from within the framework of his own expectations and discomfort.

There’s humour in here, based often on Felix’s ineptness and the matter-of-fact commentary of the people he meets. However, it’s the pathos that struck me. Manson captures the frustration of nation living in a mostly jobless society, where the only options seem to be to struggle, or leave.

There is a third choice, in fact, as Felix learns in a shocking visit to a poorly run gold mine, where the rainforest is being plundered and the local workforce endangered for the sake of precious metals to power computer circuitry.

Felix is horrified, and as readers travelling the same journey, it serves as a sort of call to arms. This is ecological expose by stealth, layered in gentle comedy and the viewpoint an unlikely hero fighting his own preconceptions. Felix’s sole goal of getting home to Bristol as fast as possible has shifted. Now his focus is about making a difference, not only to the people of Guyana but to the populations of any number of countries where big corporations are sacrificing lives, cultures and ecologies all for the sake of the next quick buck.

Down in Demerara by Mike Manson is published by Tangent Books and available to buy from Amazon.

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