Reading Challenges

July 5, 2011

Yvonne Roberts' A History of Insects

The year is 1956 and young Ella Jackson lives in the British High Command's compound in Peshawar, Pakistan. Although compound life for her parents and their expat colleagues is largely insular and separatist, nine year old Ella oscillates between two worlds: the privileged white-washed world of her family and the reality of Pakistani life with its growing anti-British sentiment.
Life inside the compound is a sharp contrast to life on Peshawar's streets: members of the colonial administration squabble over trifles, such as the latest kitchen appliances and  hand-tailored clothing imitating the latest fashions from Hollywood, while those outside the British High Command's walls go hungry in cheap cotton rags. Ella's alienation from her own mother, as well as the compound community, is illustrated through the young child's confusion over conflicts linked to race, sexuality and religion. While she tries to discern what's happening around her as best she can, the world of adults remains complicated and inaccessible to Ella: Eye to the crack in the door, she could see most of the brightly lit room. A grown-up, blindfolded and wearing a party dress, was crawling around on her hands and knees, one arm outstretched, squeaking.

A History of Insects is a coming of age novel before a child's typical coming of age. Ella is bright and independent, and like most children reared around adults or in extraordinary circumstances, possesses a maturity beyond her years. For one so young, she comes to understand firsthand the brutal consequences of colonialism and classism, while at the same time exhibiting the positive aspects of a child's openness to the world. Her curiosity, for example, about her school friend's religion (Islam) is without prejudice. Ella still holds an unbiased vision of the world that the adults around her have lost. While the British expatriates in Ella's compound are all convinced of their own moral and intellectual superiority, Roberts strips away the layers of social pressure surrounding the 1950's repressive notion of "keeping up appearances" to reveal several skeletons in the closet, including a serious criminal coverup. 

The author does an excellent job of narrating the novel from a child's perspective and capturing a young person's confusion surrounding adult themes. Roberts also artfully plays with the notion of inside/outside architecturally in the compound to juxtapose contrasting pairs: child/adult, Christian/Muslim, British/Pakistani, privilege/poverty, colonialism/independence, etc. Ella's turbulent relationship to her mother also mirrors young Pakistan's resentment towards the English. Because of the distrust she feels towards her mother, Emma learns to appreciate the art of concealment and records her secrets in a diary she names A History of Insects (the name, she hopes, will deter any unwanted attention), similar to the underground rebellion forming inside Pakistan. Emma's often surreal interpretation of adult conflicts cast erie shadows that conjure images from David Lynch (that is something is amiss, and young Emma feels it, but can't quite grasp it).

A History of Insects is an evocative read that feels part memoir, part post-colonial treatise with a coming of age story all rolled into one.

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