Black Faces, White Faces

I'd almost forgotten picking up this (very) slim volume of short stories by Jane Gardam in a second hand bookshop in Ballarat last year -- or maybe it was the year before. It's a funny little book, and I'm not sure that it would be published today. 

Originally published in 1975, it's a format I really enjoy, a suite of interconnected short stories where characters wander in and out of each other's tales. It seems to have arisen from a trip by Gardam to Jamaica, and it won two fiction prizes. But though the writing is vintage Jane Gardam -- funny, sharp, eccentric and unsentimental, reading it was not an altogether comfortable experience. 

The title of the collection is Black Faces, White Faces, but the emphasis is definitely on the white faces and voices of a group of English tourists and the way they are affected by the exotic location of the West Indies. There is no story from the point of view of a Black character, and the very first story contains some offensive language. On the other hand, I wouldn't have loved it if Gardam had spoken in the voice of a Black character either, without doing a lot of work first. Perhaps that means that there is simply no longer a place for a collection like this, presumably inspired by a brief visit to an unfamiliar setting.

This is a slight book, in every sense. I'm not sorry to have read it, but I wouldn't go out of my way to read it again.


  1. Gardam at her best is a marvellous writer; she's one who inspired me at the beginning of my own writing career. Especially the way she wrote for both children and adults! It's always disappointing to read a favourite author when they've got it wrong, when the tide has simply moved on and they stand exposed.

  2. The tide moving on is beautifully put. I can't fault the writing, it really is just the way the subject matter is framed, which would have been completely uncontroversial in 1975. I notice that none of these stories made it into the Jane Gardam The Stories anthology which came out a few years ago, perhaps that's why.