Death Register is a novel outside my literary comfort zone. It follows the formative years of Chauncey Knuckle and his group of friends, growing up in the city of Montego Bay. It explores their relationships with their peers, their families and their teachers against the intensely homophobic and patriarchal background of Jamaica in the 90s.
Chauncey’s story is directly driven by the conflict between himself and his best friend Tristan. Tristan is a homosexual and, while working together, Chauncey witnesses him being sexually abused by their employer. Chauncey fails to do anything, either to report the incident or to intervene on his friend’s behalf, which Tristan is aware of. Tristan and Chauncey also experience direct academic rivalry at the elite private school that they have attained scholarships to. Chauncey excels as a writer, but struggles with mathematics, while Tristan is naturally gifted in this field. These different factors drive resentment between the two, in addition to the struggle that Chauncey feels when it comes to accepting his friend’s homosexuality.
The men and boys throughout this novel are portrayed in a mostly negative light due to the author’s interpretation of toxic masculinity in Jamaica, to the point where the main characters are fundamentally unlikeable. Fathers beat their sons with the flats of machetes; the sons are all revolting perverts, misogynists and bullies and the main character has a penchant for both writing about and employing sexual violence against his girlfriend. I’m beginning to feel a little exhausted with this particular character trope; if mums can get off to the idea of a rapey man then maybe it’s about time we did away with this stereotype to avoid making characters into unintentional parodies of Christian Grey.
One of the key themes in this book is intolerance of homosexuality. Words like “battybwoy” and phrases such as “no-homo” crop up all over the dialogue. The climax of the book, or at least one of the climaxes, occurs as a result of Tristan being caught having sex with one of the male schoolmasters. He is beaten up and then referred to a cultish schoolboy secret society that passes judgement on such matters. He is tried in absentia and expelled from the school. Anyone associated with him is ostracised from their peers, save one of his friends that is alleged to be gay but makes a speech at the trial rejecting gay rights as incompatible with human rights. All in all, pretty fucked.
There are other important themes throughout the book, such as the conflict between the wealthy and the poor. Homeless people are ruthlessly exploited by the wealthy for sex, with homeless men engaging in sex acts with the local big men and women working in the aforementioned brothels.
The ending of the book was mostly lacklustre. Tristan is shot by corrupt police officers as a result of his involvement with a drugs gang. Chauncey reflects on his relationship with Tristan and admits that he was not entirely honest with himself or his friend as he loved him. I never really felt that this degree of affection was effectively demonstrated by the author’s writing and, instead of leaving me with a sense of sadness at this unrequited affection, I felt absolutely nothing.
I didn’t really empathise with either – or indeed any – of the characters. They all felt almost entirely flawed, tied together by a series of events that seemed to emerge out of the smog of the narrative. It felt like, in trying to portray Jamaica in its entirety, the author brought much of what should have been background into the foreground. The plot lurched from event to event and the characters then failed to react in a believable manner. I felt like the story would be much more interesting were it written from Tristan’s perspective, as he is a character that would be far easier to empathise with.
That does not mean to say that this is a not a book you should read. It exposed me to a degree of toxic masculinity that absolutely made me uncomfortable and consider my own behaviour. The innovative style by which Chauncey both experiences and writes about events in the book is interesting and exposes more of the character without engaging in prolonged internal monologues. It is a rich portrayal of a Jamaican city in the 90s and contains some profound sections and characters. The strongest example of this is Chancey’s Aunt. Although beautiful, intelligent and compassionate, she is barren and as a result has settled for an abusive boyfriend. She is possibly one of the only characters in the book that I liked and I found some of the dialogue written for her on misogyny to be rather wonderful.
Overall, Death Register is a book that I was not ready for. Although I was aware of the degree of homophobia present in Jamaica, I was unaware of the extent. I must also admit that I found the portrayal of the character’s life and their attitudes towards women very much at odds with my own worldview and experiences. That being said I think that this book raises important questions about masculinity in Jamaica and masculinity in general. It probably was not really suited for a sheltered white boy like myself.