Book Review… Boogie Days – by Albert Cumberbatch

Book Review… Boogie Days by Albert Cumberbatch

Guyanese dance through time hits mark

Boogie DaysApril 7, 2013 | By KNews |  By Dr. Glenville Ashby

Guyanese native, Albert Cumberbatch, hoists readers on his literary wagon, traversing time in this nostalgic novel. The road is a not always smooth, but through the prism of Rudy, a twelve-year-old, trials never seem adversely impactful. Rudy is a typical teen – adventurous, resourceful with an enviable ability to adapt. Boogie Days wastes little time in sowing Rudy’s experiences in Mackenzie, a suburban mining town in the South American country of Guyana. It is removed culturally from the capital, Georgetown, where Rudy lived with his aunt Vannie before being taking away by his mother.

Cumberbatch captures the rich passage of teenage life, baiting the imagination of readers. A sojourn in Berbice for Rudy is culturally awakening. He learns of the Queh Queh, a traditional African dance performed at weddings, and is imbued with country living – natural, unpretentious and earthy. Boogie Days is poignantly spirited, colourful and whimsical. 

Rudy’s character slowly develops and he is endearing to readers. But from the opening salvo this is Boogie’s show, his stage, and he plays the part almost flawlessly. He is brash, with a swash bucking style that is arguably unsavory. His swagger and air of arrogance are attributes that rile many of the older folks. He is loud, impulsive, quick to anger, and the centre of prohibitive sexual exploits that startle. Yet, there is a magnetic element – the knight that will defend the defenseless, and protect the faint at heart. Boogie is a teen hardened by the challenges of  life. Admirably, though, he commandeers his group of friends, teaching the sometimes naive Rudy, the rudiments of bucolic life. He is politically and socially astute, critical of Amerindian passivity. “Look how they just gradually clear down that hill at Wismar, right from under them, and the people just up and left….A Buck Man told me they had been living on that hill for hundreds of years.”

Later, though, Rudy, well schooled and the paragon of brilliance, seemingly in every endeavour, emerges as the center pole of Cumberbatch’s work. His capabilities are unfathomable. Quite precocious, he excels in gardening, boxing, swimming, singing, and academics. It is his scholastic prowess that opens doors, shut to others. He assumes the confidence, the bravado of Boogie, with a marked difference. He is well rounded, accomplished, and moreover, ambitious, and educationally heeled.

Cumberbatch’s work is deceptively light, a seeming casual romanticising of bygone years. It’s narrated with ease and fluidity that belie its social message. The setting in colonial Guyana, circa, 1950s is rooted in political struggles, driven by racial and religious partisanship. There is an air of social change, a thirst for independence. Mackenzie feels the impact of infrastructural growth, and Rudy and friends are fast becoming young men. Boogie Days explores individual and social transformation. It highlights the perennial problem of race and class consciousne race and class ss. In one exchange between Rudy and his close friend, he prays that future generations will be colour blind.

It reflects a time when life was rugged, but richly colourful, and somehow gratifying. And school days is always exhilarating – the taunts, the bullying, the after school fights. But for the most part, it’s a narrative steeped in existentialism, the will to survive and realise one’s potential. Its thematic underpinnings are lucidly articulated. Battling life’s obstacles, through sheer grit and the pursuit of education, seep through every page.

Indelible is Rudy’s encounter with racism when he ventured through Watooka, home to the affluent. It is a potentially perilous confrontation, loaded with racial slurs and murderous threats.
Throughout, moments of levity are never void, vacuous. Aunt Vannie’s obsession with her Chinese spirit guide, and her obsessive cleaning, at the counsel of that spirit, is hilarious on the surface, but carries a warning against spiritualism.

The reader gleans the best and worst of Guyanese life. It is an era of simplicity, authenticity – a time when disciplining recalcitrant teens is exacted with a crudeness that is denounced today. There are innuendos of social significance, for example, suggestions of sacerdotal improprieties after choir practice at the vestry. And Boogie’s passionate foray into that nation’s muddled political world is sociologically telling.

Boogie Days is bold, unapologetic, written with carefree abandon. It is played out with a compelling joie de vivre.

Yes, Cumberbatch has produced a wondrous chronicle that massages the emotions of its readers. Its characters are unique with definitive, complementary qualities. From the austere and taciturn Uncle Benji, to the prattle of Rudy and friends, readers ride an ever undulating sea of life’s vicissitudes, with an open invitation to reflect on the past, and what might have been.

Feedback: me on Twitter@glenvilleashby
Info on submissions:

Boogie Days by ARC Cumberbatch

Outskirts Press, 2012.
ISBN: 978-4327-9840-6.  Available:   Rating: Recommended

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