The first volume of his Toronto trilogy introduces readers to Bernice Leach, who has left Barbados to work in Toronto as a housekeeper in an upscale neighbourhood in the 1960s.
She has left behind a son and his father, as well as a mother and a sister, and she is preoccupied by the adjustments required for her to work for the Burrmann family and settle into this new country.
Although there are new opportunities for her in Canada, she faces new challenges as well, and she soon adopts new habits designed to facilitate her adjustment.
“One immediate result of this change in her place of worship, was that she stopped thinking Mrs. Burrmann was the devil; and consequently, stopped thinking of leaving the job. Life became a little less unbearable. She could stomach Mrs. Burrmann, who at this time, was going to the University of Toronto, doing a part-time course in Social Anthropology. Mrs. Burrmann had less time to herself; less time for the whiskey; and she spent most of the day studying. Bernice spent all her time caring for her personal appearance; and the appearance of her mind.”
She begins reading magazines which she recognizes as valuable to families like the Burrmanns and finds herself choosing different kinds of clothing; this new position both requires and encourages changes in almost every aspect of her being.
Of course there is a great deal of pressure to represent and a great deal of risk when one does not conform to social expectations (there are beatings and police chases, dismissals and insults).
“Look, you had better learn one thing. We is the only coloured people in this district. We have to be on our best peace and behaviour, always. Everything we do, every word we utter, we gotta be always remembering it is a reflection on all the hundreds and thousands o’ coloured people in Toronto and in the whole o’ Canada.”
But The Meeting Point does not paint a rosy picture of the lives of the Burrmanns either. For all that Bernice feels compelled to change integral aspects of her self (her appearance and her religious beliefs and her very thoughts), Mrs. Burrmann is not static and contented. Perhaps she does try some university studies, the way that Bernice tries a new church, but the reason to fill up her whiskey glass remains.
The Burrmann household is troubled and Bernice is clear that having money does not solve people’s problems. Even though who are most entitled in this society are struggling to find a meeting point, a sense of belonging.
“Mr. Burrmann really never felt at home, at home. Not even when, as a boy growing up on Palmerston Boulevard in the guts of old downtown Toronto, in the days when Jews inhabited and ruled that entire section bounded by College, north to Bloor Street, east to Spadina Avenue and as far west as Bathurst Street. He used to spend those days in a “gang.” Some of the “gangsters” were young “coloured boys,” sons of West Indians who had come to Canada to work as porters on the railroads, and as domestics in white, rich kitchens and homes. Mr. Burrmann was therefore acquainted, from an early age, with domestics.”
One outstanding feature of Austin Clarke’s The Meeting Point is the use of dialogue, whether internal or external. The scenes are rich and vivid, whether detailing a trip to the Malton Aiport or describing Bernice’s rooms in the Burrmann house, and the story moves steadily, showcasing the voices of the characters who will likely continue to play important roles in the series’ next two volumes.
Readers are fully immersed in Bernice’s experiences but there are enough more broadly sketched scenes for readers to observe some of the complications that arise, particularly surrounding the arrival of her sister Estelle. These complications also invite the greater participation of other members of the domestic community, who become embroiled in situations which are sometimes comic but more often painful. Disappointment and betrayal is as much featured as friendship and support.
The setting is detailed and one can imagine drawing a map of the neighbourhood which Bernice comes to know so well, even though it is not her neighbourhood, only a meeting point.
Want more bookchat about Austin Clarke? More discussed here. A bibliography on Wikipedia. A short formal biography at Athabasca University. A January Magazine interview following the publication of The Polished Hoe. An excerpt from his 2015 autobiography ‘Membering along with some terrific photographs.