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The Polished Hoe is a novel by Barbadian writer Austin Clarke, published by Thomas Allen Publishers in 2002. It was the winner of the 2002 Scotiabank Giller Prize and the 2003 Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Canada and the Caribbean region and 2003 Trillium Book Award.

The Polished Hoe
The Polished Hoe book cover.jpg
AuthorAustin Clarke
PublisherThomas Allen Publishers
Publication date



The novel is a narrative by Mary-Mathilda (Miss Mary Gertrude Matilda Paul) of her confession of a crime. The events takes place in about twenty-four hours of span starting on a night in the 1950s post World War II era. She is a respected woman of the island of Bimshire, now popularly called as Barbados. She comes to the police and confronts her old friend Percy who is a Sergeant. Percy and Mary-Mathilda have feeling for each other but can never unite. She confesses of murdering Mr. Belfeels, the owner of a sugar plantation, a rich man known for his arrogance towards the workers under him. Mary-Mathilda had been working as a field labourer, kitchen help and then as a maid and since many years has been Belfeels' mistress. She has a son Wilberforce from him who becomes a doctor after being funded by Belfeels. Her son returns to the island after his studies abroad. Belfeels lives with his wife and two daughters and keeps Mary-Mathilda in a house on the outskirts of plantation away from the town. Belfeels objectifies her and treats her ruthlessly on various occasions. On their first encounter, while she was quite young, he undresses her using the riding crop while her mother turns a blind eye. Due to this she develops a nausea of leather's smell. She also discovers a dark secret kept by her mother that she herself is Belfeels' daughter which shatters her and provokes her eventually to murder Belfeels.

Publishing and developmentEdit

The book is Clarke's tenth novel.[1] He had also published five short story collections before this book.[2] Clarke mentioned in an interview that he listened "very attentively" to American jazz trumpeter, bandleader, and composer Miles Davis while writing some of the sections of the novel.[3]:135 Clarke structured the novel in the form of short stories.[4] The novel was published by Thomas Allen Publishers in November 2002.[5]

Clarke mentioned that he got inspired by British poet and writer Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, a collection of twenty-four stories that runs to over 17,000 lines written in Middle English and its "non-traditional" usage.[6] He also noted that "[his] main concern was to find a language, or to more strictly use the language [he] already knew, in such a way that it become, in [his] manipulation of it, a new language."[6] Clarke said that he intended to "creolize Oxford English".[6]

One of the narratives of the novel is based on a real life incidents of Clarke, which he describes as "first confrontations with racism". Clarke experienced racism while travelling from Barbados to Little England, Canada with the Trans-Canada Air Lines in September 1955. He narrated the incident as the journey told by Mary-Mathilda, the leading character of the novel, who is travelling from Miami to Buffalo. The novel was later translated into Dutch by publishing house, De Geus.[6]

In 2005, when Clarke read De Inventione, an Italian handbook by Marcus Tullius Cicero, he mentioned that if he had known about it while writing the novel, "[he] might very well have drawn the characters of Mary-Mathilda; her son, Wilberforce; Sergeant; and the Constable; to say nothing of Mr. Bellfeels; in sharper poignancy and focus".[6] In the handbook, Cicero mentions that "We hold the following to be the attributes of persons: name, nature, manner of life, fortune, habit, interests, purposes, achievements, accidents, conversation."[6]

Reception and awardsEdit

The novel won the 2002 Scotiabank Giller Prize which was adjudged by Barbara Gowdy, Thomas King, and W. H. New while being shortlisted along with Mount Appetite (by Bill Gaston), The Navigator of New York (by Wayne Johnston), Open (by Lisa Moore), and Unless (by Carol Shields).[7] It also won 2003 Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Canada and the Caribbean region and 2003 Trillium Book Award.[8][9]

Upon publication, the novel received mostly favourable reviews with some criticism.[10][11][12][13] Kirkus Reviews appreciated the novel as "a memorable landscape of oppression but a problematic central figure".[14] While Ihsan Taylor of The New York Times noted that "There's a mesmerizing stillness to Austin Clarke's latest novel",[15] British writer Maya Jaggi mentions in her The Guardian review that the "[novel]'s meandering orality, its slow-burning power, succeed movingly in asserting memory over the silent gaps in recorded history."[1] Another British novelist Naeem Murr criticised Clarke for losing confidence in his characters and for forcing them deliver sociological truths but appreciates the "brilliantly written dialogue".[16] Craig Taylor in his Quill & Quire review called the novel as "a wonderful book to meander" and mentioned that "it adheres to the slow pace of the life it describes and allows characters room to become memorable."[5] Jeffrey Brown of PBS noted in an interview with Clarke: "There is a mix in your book of a kind of... I would call it almost a high poetic language, a very formal language, and then a dialect, the way they would talk to each other."[4]


  1. ^ a b Maya Jaggi (3 April 2004). "Swimming with barracudas". The Guardian. Retrieved 25 May 2017.
  2. ^ "2002: The Polished Hoe by Austin Clarke". CBC Books. 7 August 2013. Retrieved 25 May 2017.
  3. ^ Donna Bailey Nurse (2009). What's a Black Critic to Do?: Interviews, Profiles and Reviews of Black Writers. Insomniac Press. p. 209. ISBN 978-1-897414-53-8.
  4. ^ a b Jeffrey Brown (5 September 2003). "'The Polished Hoe'". PBS. Retrieved 25 May 2017.
  5. ^ a b "Book Review: The Polished Hoe". Quill & Quire. Retrieved 29 May 2017.
  6. ^ a b c d e f Austin Clarke (22 August 2015). The Austin Clarke Library: 'Membering / The Polished Hoe / Choosing His Coffin. Dundurn. ISBN 978-1-4597-3440-1.
  7. ^ "Past Winners and Juries". Scotiabank Giller Prize. Retrieved 25 May 2017.
  8. ^ "The Polished Hoe @ Dundurn". Dundurn. Retrieved 25 May 2017.
  9. ^ "Trillium Book Award Winners". Ontario Media Development Corporation. Retrieved 30 May 2017.
  10. ^ "The Polished Hoe". The New Yorker. 4 August 2003. Retrieved 25 May 2017.
  11. ^ Elizabeth Walcott-Hackshaw (2006). "The Polished Hoe (review)". Project MUSE. Retrieved 25 May 2017.
  12. ^ "The Polished Hoe". Book Browse. Retrieved 25 May 2017.
  13. ^ Latha Viswanathan (17 August 2003). "'The Polished Hoe' by Austin Clarke: Conflict of colonialism at novel's heart". chron. Retrieved 25 May 2017.
  14. ^ "The Polished Hoe". Kirkus Reviews. 1 May 2003. Retrieved 25 May 2017.
  15. ^ Ihsan Taylor (14 September 2003). "Mary-Mathilda's Murderous Monologue". The New York Times. Retrieved 25 May 2017.
  16. ^ Naeem Murr (1 May 2003). "The Book Review: The Polished Hoe". Publishers Weekly. Retrieved 25 May 2017.