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Local Customs by Audrey Thomas

Post Date: March 29, 2014 by josiemounsey

In this enthralling glimpse into a past world, the reader hears the lyrical voice, from beyond the grave, of Letitia Landon (Letty or LEL), a real-life successful poet in 1830s London.


Letty’s grave lies far from the streets and gentile life she inhabited in her first thirty-six years.  Anxious to escape personal scandal, she inveigles George Maclean, the governor of Cape Coast Castle in the malaria-ridden Gold Coast of West Africa (now known as Ghana), into marrying her.


Eight weeks after coming ashore, Letty is dead.  Accidental death by poisoning (she held a vial of prussic acid in her hand) was the official verdict.  As Isaac, sense-boy at Cape Coast Castle, comments:  “She no sick; she no complain, no nuttin’.  And then she go die, one time.”  But, wouldn’t such a prolific writer have left a record of her last words for the world to read?


The tantalizing narrative is peppered with clues as to how she might have met her end.  From the time she entered Cape Coast Castle, an aura of menace seemed to stalk her, from the voodoo dolls left outside her room, to the presence she feels and hears in the dead of night, and tales of poisonous local plants.  Was she frightened to death?  No one will ever know whether Letty’s death was by her own hand or there were more sinister forces at play.  Some of Letty’s thoughts are strangely prophetic, e.g.  “What looks solid on the surface can be completely eaten away underneath.”.


Letty’s incomplete story is told in her own imagined voice and those of others who lived at the time and came into contact with her.  This raises the moral dilemma with which most writers of fiction struggle when they tackle the problem of mixing truth, fact, and fiction:  how close to the truth does a novelist have to be when writing about historical figures?  Is it okay to blur fact and fiction and put words into a long-dead mouth?  Some writers, like Kate Taylor in her novel ‘Mme. Proust and the Kosher Kitchen,’ feel writers can take liberties, such as re-ordering dates and places, in order to get readers to believe in the world she has created.  This leads me to question whether when coating someone’s life with a veneer of our own, do we do them a disservice?  Should we go there?


Despite these reservations, Local Customs allows a window into a time of historical importance in West Africa, where the traditions of the British Empire and local customs attempted to co-exist, sometimes with fatal results.

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