Published 28 October 201015 November 2010 · Main Posts Non-fiction review – Life on the Edge: The Autobiography of Ralph de Boissière Rhona Hammond Life on the Edge: The Autobiography of Ralph de Boissière Lexicon Trinidad Limited Ralph de Boissière lived for a hundred years and wrote five novels but this autobiography may be the story that de Boissière was always meant to tell. Born in Trinidad in 1907 he migrated to Melbourne in 1948 and lived the rest of his life there working in a variety of mundane day jobs while writing and rewriting his novels. De Boissière did not achieve success as a novelist in either the West Indies or Australia although his two major novels, Crown Jewel and Rum and Coca Cola, were published widely in Eastern Europe. He wanted to describe a society and its people in his novels and he was impressed by the example of Tolstoy and Turgenev but as de Boissière filters his experiences to create his autobiography he does a better job of describing people functioning within their societies in all their unpleasantness, glory and contradiction than most novels ever manage. Ralph de Boissière lived for a hundred years and wrote five novels but this autobiography may be the story that de Boissière was always meant to tell. Born in Trinidad in 1907 he migrated to Melbourne in 1948 and lived the rest of his life there working in a variety of mundane day jobs while writing and rewriting his novels. De Boissière did not achieve success as a novelist in either the West Indies or Australia although his two major novels, Crown Jewel and Rum and Coca Cola, were published widely in Eastern Europe. He wanted to describe a society and its people in his novels and he was impressed by the example of Tolstoy and Turgenev but as de Boissière filters his experiences to create his autobiography he does a better job of describing people functioning within their societies in all their unpleasantness, glory and contradiction than most novels ever manage. The tightness and poverty of Trinidadian society suffocates us as we read about his education and childhood. As a young man De Boissière set out into the world with only a high school education and a passionate commitment to his art. Opportunities were limited but he was fortunate throughout his life to meet and build connections with likeminded people such as The Beacon Group in Trinidad and the Realist Writers who founded the Australasian Book Society in order to get their books published. Race and class shaped him because they dominated his society and eventually, like many West Indians who were ‘passing’ but not quite white enough for the local system of stratification, Ralph de Boissière emigrated to start afresh. He was cared for but not loved by his stepmother so when he tries to explain the difference between the excitement and drive of the Australian Communist Party and the inertia that he had left behind, his description of Trinidad’s domineering ‘step-mother England’ is striking. However Australia was no paradise, especially not for his wife Ivy whose support he acknowledges. It is hard for the reader not to feel that this very capable woman was miserably homesick for nearly forty years and her first experience of Australia cannot have helped. De Boissière’s story of the White Australia policy at work on his wife and two daughters upon their arrival in Melbourne is not surprising but it is nevertheless shocking and shameful. “My family is still on board the Marine Phoenix. Why haven’t they been allowed to disembark? What is all this aboutCanberra?” He began to take me to task. I must have known that there were certain restrictions on entry, I had deliberately breached them, I had put the shipping line in a very difficult position (163) We left the ship with the sick, unhappy feeling that we were tolerated migrants. It would be long before she could put this humiliating episode behind her (164) Straightforward story telling and honest descriptions grab the reader’s imagination and pull us into the amazing episodes of his life such as the American ‘invasion’ of Trinidad during the Second World War, studying motor mechanics in Chicago, travelling by sea to a new life in Melbourne or visiting China and Russia as an honoured, Australian Communist guest. De Boissière felt a migrant’s distance from his fellow Australians. They could not pronounce his funny name or understand the way that he spoke. He was a quiet, cultured, bookish man who did not share their passion for football or their parochial desire to travel around the country in a caravan. He quietly passes judgement on his colleague at the Gas Company who hates the Japanese because of the war yet buys one of their cars because the bargain is too good to miss. At the same time he received enormous help, support and comradeship from many Australians such as the Lundmark family, the novelists John Morrison and Alan Marshall and the Gunsbergers, refugees from Hungary. He bought a boomerang from Lin Onus’ father, Bill. By the end of his life de Boissière had also found a new love and companion in Annie Greet. On balance, he was a fortunate man. The book was edited and introduced by the prominent Caribbean critic Kenneth Ramchand who provides important background information for those who are not familiar with Caribbean studies. It is illustrated with photographs, letters, a family tree and useful biographical notes but a timeline would have been a helpful addition. The book is not on sale in Australia yet other than a few copies available from anniegreet[at]westnet.com.au. It may be ordered from the publisher directly: lexicon[at]tstt.net.tt Rhona Rhona Hammond More by Rhona Hammond › Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places. If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate. Related articles & Essays First published in Overland Issue 228 8 September 202326 September 2023 · Main Posts Announcing the 2023 Judith Wright Poetry Prize ($9000) Editorial Team Established in 2007 and supported by the Malcolm Robertson Foundation, the Overland Judith Wright Poetry Prize for New and Emerging Poets seeks poetry by writers who have published no more than one collection of poems under their own name (that is writers who’ve had zero collections published, or one solo collection published). It remains one of the richest prizes for emerging poets, and is open to poets anywhere in the world. 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