Portsmouth University Visiting Lecturer Mike Manson’s effervescent new novel Down in Demerara concerns Felix Radstock, a British consultant sent to humid and chaotic Guyana to gather data on its economy. The problem is, he doesn’t know what he’s getting into until he’s in way too deep. Georgina Monk has gone there with him and has thoroughly enjoyed the ride.
One of Down in Demerara’s many pleasures is its dry, quirky and very British sense of humour, which is clear from the outset with observations about the curious appeal of ‘eating breakfast in a brothel’. The novel goes on to play with the trope of ‘the Englishman abroad’, the stoic yet hapless Felix worried that a builder visiting his girlfriend back home in Bristol might be eating all his Chocolate Hobnobs. Whatever the (sometimes life-threatening) scrapes he gets into while travelling around the jungles of Guyana, Felix stays sane by drinking cups of tea and scoffing multi-packs of giant Toblerone bars. While he befriends some of the Guyanese he meets – including his eccentric chauffeur Xavier – we get the sense that other locals are constantly one step ahead of him, secretly smirking as he shambles between picturesque settings, clueless about what he’s supposed to be doing.
There’s a tinge of ironic foreboding to the comedy too, with one character Felix meets warning that ‘the shops are going to run out of food and planes are going to fall out of the sky’. The tale is set in 1999 and Felix’s colleagues in the UK are worried that the Y2K Bug (or so-called ‘Millennium Bug’) will crash all of the world’s computers.
Altogether more genuine threats appear – to both Felix and a native tribe he visits – in the second half of the novel, which dampens the happy-go-lucky tone a little. The ‘rainforest is attacking me,’ Felix panics before he figures out his true purpose in Guyana by taking his own advice to ‘look behind the figures’ and find ‘a story hidden there’.
A key theme of Down in Demerara is that surfaces and first impressions are often misleading, and that it takes hard work to find the truth beyond them. In this regard, the reader is with Felix all the way. As he gets duped and bamboozled, so do we. As he has epiphanies – about his assignment, the motives of the weird plethora of people he meets, Guyana’s role in the wider world – so do we. These sub-plots never divert from the main action of the story, and the ending ties everything up smartly in a fashion that is both surprising and appropriate given how the plot has developed up to that point.
Although Down in Demerara is a work of fiction, at times the prose reads like the best kind of non-fictional travel writing. Manson intertwines Felix’s madcap narrative with intricate discussions of Guyana’s cultural, political, economic and natural history. The descriptions of flora and fauna are frequently dazzling: ‘A flock of macaws, scarlet, yellow and horizon-blue, as vivid as a living rainbow’.
‘I’d never realised the vastness of the world,’ exclaims Felix after his mind has been blown one too many times by these spectacles. His slightly Western-centric views on colonialism and other topics are repeatedly challenged, and he learns a lot from the experience. Xavier’s declaration that, as an intelligent, university-educated Guyanese, he is at ‘nobody’s disposal’ serves to mellow Felix’s occasionally arrogant presumptions. These incidents hark back to the friendly ‘insider’ characters in memoirs of place such as Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals (1956), whose eager taxi driver Spiro offers the British Durrell family insights into Corfu from the perspective of an ordinary citizen of the Greek island.
Ultimately, Down in Demerara is about a man who changes for the better by immersing himself in a testing yet alluring foreign land. This bittersweet process is addictively fun but also soberingly serious.
Image courtesy of Mike Manson and Tangent Books.