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Non-fiction review – Life on the Edge: The Autobiography of Ralph de Boissière

Life on the Edge: The Autobiography of Ralph de Boissière
Lexicon Trinidad Limited

Crown JewelRalph 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.

Rum & Coca-colaRalph 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.

Ralph de Boissere

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

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Non-fiction review – Life on the Edge: The Autobiography of Ralph de Boissière « Overland literary journal -- Topsy.com

  2. On the other hand, in his review of Crown Jewel in The Times Literary Supplement (7 Aug.81), Salman Rushdie wrote of the novel’s exposure of Britain’s ‘hypocrisies and ironies’, describing it as ‘this passionate, humane, vibrant book’. It had a similarly enthusiastic reception across the Atlantic in eg. The New York Review of Books (Darryl Pinckney 27 May 1982) and by the Australian Left earlier, eg by Dame Mary Gilmore. The autobiography continues to engage with the politics of race and justice which are the basis of the novels.

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