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Windward Family

Alexis Keir 

(Thread Books, 2023) 

Review by Emily Zobel Marshall 

 

Keir’s memoir brims with tenderness and care – a deep-rooted, committed type of care which spans continents and concerns itself with both the living and the dead. This is a book of many crossings, which knits together village life in Biabou, St. Vincent with Caribbean communities in Luton and with the Māori of New Plymouth, Aotearoa (New Zealand). It is also to tribute to the strength and resilience of ‘barrel children’ all over the world – whose parents have migrated and left them behind, sending barrels of goods back home which do little to relieve the pain of parental separation. 

Initially, Keir floats ‘between worlds, not knowing where [he is] allowed to land’. It is a journey to New Zealand, and profound encounters with Māori people, their sense of community and ancestral bonds, which urges him to return to his homeland in St. Vincent. Keir’s writing is uncomplicated, but he deftly captures the nuances of human emotion, and invites the reader to journey with him on his search across time and space for connectedness and belonging. This is both a coming-of-age story and a story of return, but it is also one which bravely weaves memoir with historical re-imaginings. 

Interspersed with his journey of self-discovery are the stories of other lost children from St. Vincent. Keir meticulously researches these often-tragic tales – for example, George Alexander Gratton (1808-1813), a young boy with vitiligo, taken from his mother by an English man and displayed in a circus as the ‘The Beautiful Spotted Boy’, who dies before he is five years old. Keir imagines George’s mother Catherine coming to look for him, only to find that he has passed. As Keir explains in his final piece, ‘a letter from Alexis’, it’s George’s painful story which inspired the memoir. He also reclaims the story of George ‘Bertie’ Robinson, ‘The Footman from Saint Vincent’ (1879-unknown), and Annie Catherine Brewster, ‘The Nurse Ophthalmic’ (1858- 1902). ‘Bertie’ was brought from St. Vincent to Harewood House in Yorkshire when he was thirteen years old by the 5th Countess and Earl of Harewood (Henry Lascelles) when they were visiting their Caribbean plantations, and served as a footman in their stately home. He was sacked and told to leave the country after being caught stealing a £50 note from the Earl for his pregnant sweetheart. At one point, ‘Bertie’ travelled back with his ‘employers’ by yacht to St. Vincent, but after being left in Barbados ‘Bertie’ went to the missionary headquarters, told them that the yacht had left without him and his passage was assisted, via a Royal Mail vessel, back to England, where he took up his position once again at Harewood House. This refusal to return to St Vincent haunts Keir as he grapples with the realisation that he himself must return if he is to make sense of his life. 

The most moving descriptions are of Keir’s mother, in which the closeness and tenderness of their relationship is palpable. I cried when Keir described how his mother, who only had a few weeks to live, was so intensely proud of Stacey Dooley’s success on Strictly Come Dancing. Keir and his mother watch Stacey win the competition on TV; his mother is thrilled that a working-class girl from Luton is making it big. ‘What’s her family name you say, Dooley?’ his mother asks, and I can hear her voice and am touched by the need to connect with and celebrate others, even as death weighs in. 

Keir himself carries this same sense of wanting to reach out and honour people; his close attention to detail lovingly brings his characters to life. Nothing they say, do or wear is too unimportant for observation and comment. A lovely example can be found in his detailing of how he assists his aging Dad to cook a traditional meal in St. Vincent. The focus here is sharp: shrimps resemble larger than life woodlice, the green tendrils of vegetables have ‘long leaves hanging like verdant dreadlocks’ as his father swoops around the kitchen giving orders. There are moments when the writing does verge on the over-sentimental, but this is superseded by the gentle, often romantic urge to celebrate and cherish through stories, exemplified in his promises to his mother after her death:  

‘A procession of cars for another funeral passed by… as my father had taught me, I picked up a stray green leaf flying on the grass, and holding it up between finger and thumb, I let the winter breeze take it and carry it away, fluttering over Mum’s headstone and away across the graves as I whispered, ‘I love you’. 

I watched Mum’s candle flicker, and I promised her that I would look after her grandchildren all my life and that her family would remain strong and stay close to each other.’ 

After leaving St. Vincent, Keir’s mother worked as nurse in Luton, and on finding her nursing records, which detail the mothers and babies she looked after, Keir wonders what happened to those vulnerable lives and how the mothers coped with stillbirths, miscarriages or motherhood. Here again, love and empathy reach out beyond the self and family, fanning out across time and continents. 

Keir reveals to us his strong need for connection in a life which has been ruptured by forced journeys and the memories of childhood separation. He is continually questioning where home is, and yet through his rediscovery of his connection to St. Vincent he is able to draw from the resilience and strength of ‘Vinceys’ – people who, he proudly reminds us, were only enslaved for 80 years, due to the resistance to colonisers from indigenous and African forces, while the plantation slavery period lasted for over 200 years on other Caribbean islands. 

This book is a love letter to family – to mother, father, to cousins, aunts and uncles, but also to those Kier meets on his travels. As he observes, ‘I had to travel to shores far away in miles and memory to find out that it was alright to do things differently from those around me’. Kneeling at his mother’s graveside, he feels that his life is ‘filled with sadness and washed bare by the tears of all my separations and losses’. Yet on his return to St. Vincent, he hears a song which encapsulates for him a sense of fragile and tender hopefulness. This is a type of hopefulness which can only grow from a people rooted in historical pain, and it pervades every page of this compassionate and loving story of rupture and homecoming.

We’re out to build a new Saint Vincent 

We’re out to build a new Saint Vincent 

We’re out to build a new Saint Vincent

The future’s in our hands

 

https://www.hachette.co.uk/titles/alexis-keir/windward-family/9781909770713/

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