Our Book Club Pick: As Flies to Whatless Boys by Robert Antoni

by Shivanee Ramlochan, Paper Based Blogger

Published by Akashic Books, 2013

“… there was something gentle & easy & comforting in the island’s mere presence before us: its hazy solidity. The indisputable fact of its simply being there — only a stone’s throw away — despite its dreamlike appearance. And those of us still leaning up against the rail, still gazing through the descending dark, found it difficult, almost painful, to turn we backs to it.”

The year is 1845, and the utopianist visionary, John Adolphus Etzler, is setting sail for Trinidad, along with his fantastical invention, the Satellite, and the members of his Tropical Emigration Society. Among their rank and file is young William “Willy” Tucker and his family, seeking a better life away from their low-class, East End London existence.  Willy, truth be told, is transfixed by the mute beauty Marguerite, also on board the Rosalind — he and Marguerite are from different worlds in England, but he hopes that in this brave new world, he and his sweetheart might tread the same path.

Life holds stark revelations when the Tropical Emigration Society docks in Port-Spain, and Etzler’s machines are put to the test, with drastically useless results. How will these beached migrants fare in the island’s jungle morasses, especially when the “Black Vomit” (yellow fever) begins to snare the travellers, one by one?

Non-fiction category winner of the 2011 OCM Bocas Prize, Edwidge Danticat, praises Antoni’s novel as “a marvel, layered in histories… an unforgettable and matchless work of fiction.” We couldn’t agree with her more: Antoni’s prose pushes linguistic and traditional text-format boundaries in the best way. As Flies to Whatless Boys was Paper Based’s final official book launch of 2013, a fact of which we’re especially proud. Held on December 14th, the event boasted a capacity audience, each of whom listened, rapt, while Antoni read segments of his book — of particular delight was his rendition of the infamous Miss Ramsol character. (Readers who’ve enjoyed Antoni’s story, “How to Make Photocopies in the Trinidad & Tobago National Archives”, from the Trinidad Noir anthology, will recognize the boisterous, colourful character immediately.)

The novel’s immense range; its clarity and depth; its irrepressible sense of humour despite bleak circumstances; the way it tackles historical documentation with a neo-archivist’s repurposing zeal: these and other reasons are why we’re thrilled to proclaim As Flies to Whatless Boys our January Book Club pick! Have a look at our reading circle questions below — if you’ve read the book, do share your thoughts with us, and feel free to add questions of your own in our Comments section.

Discussion Questions for As Flies to Whatless Boys:

  • The novel is opened with two epigraphs: one from William Shakespeare’s King Lear, and one from “The Schooner’s Flight” by Derek Walcott. Which of these do you find ties in more directly to the heart of the book?
  • Many of the people and events in the novel have their basis in historical fact. What do you think of this marriage of fiction to reality? Do you think some historical figures and happenings ought never be creatively interpreted, or do you think everything that’s happened in History is worth exploring imaginatively?
  • Miss Ramsol, director of the Trinidad & Tobago National Archives, has been described as “the best thing about the book” — do you agree? What do you think her letters add to the novel (or would you have preferred the book without them?)
  • Willy and Marguerite share an unconventional romance, most of which unfurls aboard the Rosalind. Do you think their relationship would have been possible in nineteenth century London? What other unconventional relationships exist in the book?
  • John Adolphus Etzler could be said to be both a charlatan and a visionary: are there any Etzler-esque, larger than life con artists in today’s world? Do you think you would have been tempted to sign up for the Tropical Emigration Society?
  • The bond between Willy Tucker and his father is a moving one, explored in the novel in a variety of ways. Which interaction between the two Tuckers most moved you, and which piece of advice given from father to son, did you find most meaningful?
  • Does your favourite moment of the novel take place on the sea, or on the land; in England, or in Trinidad; in the nineteenth century, or in 2010? Do you feel, by novel’s end, that Willy has made the right choices — and how would you choose, were you in his shoes?

Previous Book Club Picks:

Wishing for Wings by Debbie Jacob
Between Bodies Lie by H. M. Blanc

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