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A High Wind in Jamaica (New York Review Books Classics) Paperback – September 30, 1999

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Editorial Reviews Review

A High Wind in Jamaica is not so much a book as a curious object, like a piece of driftwood torqued into an alarming shape from years at sea. And like driftwood, it seems not to have been made, exactly, but simply to have come into being, so perfectly is its form married to its content. The five Bas-Thornton children must leave their parents in Jamaica after a terrible hurricane blows down their family home. Accompanied by their Creole friends, the Fernandez children, they board a ship that is almost immediately set upon by pirates. The children take to corsair life coolly and matter-of-factly; just as coolly do they commit horrible deeds, and have horrible deeds visited upon them. First published in 1929, A High Wind in Jamaica has been compared to Lord of the Flies in its unflinching portrayal of innocence corrupted, but Richard Hughes is the supreme ironist William Golding never was. He possesses the ability to be one moment thoroughly inside a character's head, and the next outside of it altogether, hilariously commenting.

Irony finds a happy home indeed in the book's mixture of the macabre and the adorable. The baby girl, Rachel, "could even sum up maternal feelings for a marline-spike, and would sit up aloft rocking it in her arms and crooning. The sailors avoided walking underneath: for such an infant, if dropped from a height, will find its way through the thickest skull (an accident which sometimes befalls unpopular captains)." In that "such an infant" lies a world of mordant wit. In fact, throughout, Hughes's wildly eccentric punctuation and startling syntax make just the right verbal vehicle for this dark-hearted pirate story for grownups.

Hughes enjoys some coy riffing on the child mind, as with this description of the way Emily handles an uncomfortable social situation: "Much the best way of escaping from an embarrassing rencontre, when to walk away would be an impossible strain on the nerves, is to retire in a series of somersaults. Emily immediately started turning head over heels up the deck." Even so, Hughes never sentimentalizes his subject: "Babies of course are not human--they are animals, and have a very ancient and ramified culture, as cats have, and fishes, and even snakes." Children, as a race, are given rough treatment: "their minds are not just more ignorant and stupider than ours, but differ in kind of thinking (are mad, in fact)." That madness is here isolated, prodded, and poked to chilling effect. But Hughes never loses sight of his ultimate objective: A High Wind in Jamaica is, above all, a cracking good yarn. --Claire Dederer


"This brilliant, gorgeously written, highly entertaining, and apparently light-hearted idyll quickly reveals its true nature as a powerful and profoundly disquieting meditation on the meaning of loyalty and betrayal, innocence and corruption, truth and deception."

— Francine Prose, Elle


"During one snowy day, I read the whole book in one gulp. It was remarkable, tiny, crazy. I felt just like I did as a kid."

— Andrew Sean Greer, All Things Considered, NPR


"A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes is like those books you used to read under the covers with a flashlight, only infinitely more delicious and macabre."

— Andrew Sean Greer, All Things Considered, NPR

“Cross a wacky seafaring adventure--Conrad gone awry via inept piracy--with an exploration of the consciousness of a child as radical and insightful as that provided by Henry James in What Maisie Knew, and you have A High Wind In Jamaica by Richard Hughes....By turns funny, ironic, and brutally sad, this is a complex and astonishing novel."—Sue Miller, Barnes and Noble Review

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Product Details

  • Series: New York Review Books Classics
  • Paperback: 279 pages
  • Publisher: NYRB Classics (September 30, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0940322153
  • ISBN-13: 978-0940322158
  • Product Dimensions: 5 x 0.8 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (95 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #91,736 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

111 of 114 people found the following review helpful By bensmomma on October 31, 2003
Format: Paperback
On its surface, Hughes' High Wind in Jamaica is the story of two families of young cchildren, sent home to England by their parents following a cataclysmic hurricane that levels their plantation in Jamaica. Subsequently the children are kidnapped by pirates; the book follows their story until their eventual return to England. The pirates turn out to be, for the most part, well-intended and even protective of the children, but by the end of the story the same cannot really be said of the children themselves, whose behavior at points seems threatening and malevolent by comparison to their captors.
Others have made a comparison between this book and "Lord of the Flies," both because of their stories of children torn apart from the moorings of civilization, and for their undercurrent emotion of malevolence, darkness, and evil. To my mind, Hughes' intent is broader than that, and I actually prefer "High Wind" to its rival. Hughes is also exploring a more general theme of alienation and the kind of moral emptiness that accompanies it: child vs. adult, plantation owners vs. slaves, the wild of Jamaica vs. the civilized form of the British Empire, each unknowing and thus cruel to the other.
The ending is actually shocking, a perfect end to this highly unconventional but perfectly-pitched book. One of my "best ever" novels.
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65 of 67 people found the following review helpful By asphlex on December 20, 2003
Format: Paperback
This is a wonderful book. Short, swift and very bloody, Hughes tells a story of children as seperate from adult human nature and explores the ways in which children can cope with danger and catastrophe in the light of the usual adult nervous fumbling. It is a psychological portrait, but is so much more as well. An exciting action-adventure; an epic on nature and the sea; a ruthless story of pirates in the age of their decline; a terrifying masterwork detailing the lies all people must tell themselves in order to survive.
It is difficult to sum up exactly what is going on throughout the book, event leading to action leading to betrayal leading to another fun game. In the end the book might even be read as a comedy--that of a pessimist attacking both human nature and the world--and I must admit that throughout several of the more harrowing scenes I found myself laughing in self-defense.
Great, great stuff, beautifully written and compelling. I wouldn't presume to guess how any one individual might take it and that, to me, the unexpectedness of the whole thing, is what constitutes some of the greatest masterpieces. Very highly recommended--
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49 of 50 people found the following review helpful By brewster22 on August 12, 2003
Format: Paperback
I'll never be able to say the MLA's list of the greatest novels of the 20th Century was a total waste, because it made me aware of this book's existence.
I'd never heard of "A High Wind in Jamaica," and had a hell of a time trying to find it---I ended up in the basement of a branch of my public library (I guess I shouldn't be endorsing the use of libraries on Amazon's site, but I can't afford to buy every book I want to read---sorry, Amazon). Once I started it, I couldn't put it down.
I'm always wishing I could find books like the ones it seems are only written for children. Kids get great books---full of adventure and fantasy and harrowing escapes, etc. It always sounds fun to go back and read books that enthralled me as a kid so I can recapture the same feelings that filled me then. But it never works. I can never get into kids' books in the same way, no matter how hard I try.
"A High Wind in Jamaica" is like a children's book written for adults. It's got all the right elements: tropical locations, a harrowing storm, pirates, murder. But the psychological element Richard Hughes gives to the story adds a dark, brutal dimension that children's books are often missing altogether or only skate briefly by.
This novel has a wonderful way of seeing events through the eyes of a child, and it functions as a sort of warning not to forget that children, though maybe possessing less life experience than adults, are capable of feeling the same emotions and, more importantly, have the potential to be just as brutal. In fact, Hughes suggests that children may actually be more brutal, since they have less of a knowledge base from which to understand and weigh consequences.
I don't want to make this book sound over burdened with rhetoric and psychobabble, however.
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23 of 25 people found the following review helpful By A.J. on April 27, 2001
Format: Paperback
Richard Hughes's "A High Wind in Jamaica" is a subtle dark comedy that explores the contrast between how adults and children perceive their surroundings and the psychology of child-adult relations. Written in a loose, informal style, it is a fast, fun, yet compelling read.
The Bas-Thorntons are an English family living on an estate in Jamaica some time in the late 19th Century. They have five children ranging in age from about twelve to three. When their house is demolished in a hurricane, the parents decide to send the kids back to England to spare them from future potential danger and emotional trauma.
The kids sail back to England on a small ship called the Clorinda, accompanied by two friends whose parents also are staying in Jamaica. Soon the Clorinda is overtaken by a schooner bearing pirates, who rob it of its cargo and kidnap the children. It is not the pirates' intention to detain the children for long, but the captain of the Clorinda, believing that the pirates have murdered the kids, escapes the encounter and notifies the Bas-Thornton parents of the unfortunate incident.
The pirates, as the children soon discover, are not very menacing and not very competent in the moribund business of piracy. They stop at a coastal village in Cuba and try to auction off all the cargo from the Clorinda but meet with indifference from the villagers. Failing to slough the kids off on the village's Chief Magistrate, the pirates resume cruising around the Caribbean with a cargo of unwanted brats. As the kids eventually adopt the schooner as their new playground, the pirates' captain begins to take on a role akin to a hapless school bus driver, a fortuitous babysitter and awkward disciplinarian.
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