The Chip-Chip Gatherers by Shiva Naipaul

If you’re a regular reader of my blog you’ll know I usually open each review with a story or an anecdote. This time I’m going to break with tradition and pitch straight in.

The Chip-Chip Gatherers is set in Trinidad and centred on the Settlement, a collection of “mean huts and houses clinging despairingly to the curves of the narrow main road”.

The main characters are:

Egbert Ramsaran – the richest man in the Settlement, a capricious, mean-spirited despot.

Wilfred Ramsaran – Egbert’s son, made insecure and awkward by Egbert’s bullying.

Singh – Egbert’s illegitimate son, bitter and solitary, forced by Egbert to live in a dilapidated estate he owns in the centre of the island.

Vishnu Bholai – Egbert’s childhood friend, a man “wracked by guilt and inferiority”.

Moon Bholai – Vishnu’s wife, continually and publically ridicules her husband.

Julian Bholai – Vishnu’s son, handsome and clever, he aspires to be a doctor and despises his parents.

Sushila – wayward, reckless, unpredictable, she abandons her daughter in the Settlement, before returning with the purpose of seducing Egbert.

Sita – Sushila’s daughter, aloof and reticent, briefly friends with Julian Bholai, clever but sees her life as nothing more than a “miserable parody”.

I could go on…

If you want a novel to have likeable characters, someone to root for, or a happy ending, this isn’t for you. The protagonists are so disagreeable or closed-down, or both, I very nearly didn’t bother to write a review; I was that keen to forget them. As for the plot, the title encapsulates it perfectly. It turns out that chip-chip are tiny clams that live in sand along the tide-line, and gathering them is tiring and brings little reward. Naipaul might as well have called his book Life is Hard Work and Futile.

For all that, it didn’t enter my mind not to read to the last page. The quality of the writing is undeniable – after all, The Chip-Chip Gatherers won the 1973 Whitbread Award (precursor to the Costa Award).  Possibly that’s what kept me interested. Or maybe it’s just that I couldn’t make myself turn away even though I knew it wasn’t going to end well for anybody, like watching a car crash in slow-motion, or an episode of EastEnders.

Rating: * Not for me (but worth a try)

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