The Polished Hoe

READ THE WORLD – Barbados: The Polished Hoe by Austin Clarke

Narrated by Robin Miles

Trigger warnings for rape, sexual assault, racism.

On a Caribbean island in the 1950s, elderly Mary Gertrude Mathilda commits murder. As she explains herself to police, her story exposes the ugly underbelly of life on Caribbean plantations, with its slavery and brutality.

This is one of those books that I’m very glad I listened to the audiobook. The characters speak in creole and it’s something I find easier to understand when hearing it compared to reading it. A good 90% of the book is in that kind of vernacular as the characters talk a lot and describe events and places in great detail.

Even though I listened to the audiobook, I still found The Polished Hoe a bit of a slog to get through. The story takes place over one night as Mary Gertrude Mathilda gives her statement to the police Sergeant Percy. But her statement is more than the how and the why of the murder, it’s Mary Gertrude Mathilda’s life story and how it’s entwined with the history of the island. You don’t learn the how of the murder till the last couple of chapters but the reasons why Mary Gertrude Mathilda would commit murder is sprinkled throughout the story with the final reason that provokes her to finally act is revealed towards the end of the novel.

Mary Gertrude Mathilda grew up on a plantation, working in the fields, then in the kitchen as she got older. She was also repeatedly raped by Mr Belfeels, the plantation owner. The descriptions of their encounters and the assaults she experienced are vivid, but she also recounts them in such a matter of fact way that there’s a distance there too. Even as an adolescent she knows what is happening to her is wrong, but she also knows there’s nothing she can say or do to make it stop.

There are also long sections from Percy’s point of view. He’s been infatuated with Mary Gertrude Mathilda since he was a teenager and he struggles to put his fantasies aside when he’s with her, listening to her story. They are both well-written and well-developed characters, full of contradictions and flaws and aspirations. There is a long history between them and they each delve into a different part of it at different times throughout the book. You get the sense of how their friendship could’ve been much stronger if there wasn’t the issue of perceived class that divided them – Mary Gertrude Mathilda is well respected in the community because of her connection to Mr Belfeels while Percy is just a police officer, even if he is the Sergeant.

It was hard to follow the general plot of The Polished Hoe and both Mary Gertrude Mathilda’s and Percy’s trains of thought in the novel. While the story takes place over one night, they recount historic events and how it’s affected them both and the islands inhabitants. The story meanders from different times and places and jumps back and forth from different points and ideas. The writing definitely captured how people speak as Mary Gertrude Mathilda would start talking about one thing and then that would inspire her to go onto another topic before circling back around to finish what she was originally saying.

The Polished Hoe is well-written but while the characters are well-defined, the actual plot is thin on the ground and it’s more about two characters reminiscing about their experiences. It has a lot of detail of what life on a plantation is like and covers tough topics like racism, slavery, rape and white privilege but those themes, while obviously important, aren’t enough to make an engaging story. I kept reading The Polished Hoe because it was an audiobook (so it was easy) and because I wanted to know what Mary Gertrude Mathilda had actually done and what was the repercussions but unfortunately not all of those questions were answered in a satisfactory way or at all. 2/5.