Pauline Melville

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Pauline Melville

Born1948 (age 73–74)
OccupationWriter, actor
Notable worksShape-Shifter (1990); The Ventriloquist's Tale (1997)

Pauline Melville FRSL (born 1948) is a Guyanese-born writer and former actor of mixed European and Amerindian ancestry,[1] who is currently based in London, England. Among awards she has received for her writing – which encompasses short stories, novels and essays – are the Commonwealth Writers' Prize, the Guardian Fiction Prize, the Whitbread First Novel Award, and the Guyana Prize for Literature. Salman Rushdie has said: "I believe her to be one of the few genuinely original writers to emerge in recent years."[2]

Background and early career[edit]

Melville was born in the former colony of British Guiana (present-day Guyana), where she spent her pre-school years in the 1940s; her mother was English, and her father Guyanese[3] of mixed race, "part South American Indian, African and Scottish".[4]

The family moved to south London in the early 1950s, and after leaving school in the early 1960s, Melville worked at London's Royal Court Theatre, which would eventually lead to her becoming a professional actor.[1][3] She first appeared in films in 1967, and in 1970–74 decided to further her education by doing a course in psychology and economics at Brunel University, then sought to combine art and politics by working with the Joint Stock Theatre Company and the Scottish theatre company 7:84.[3] She also concerned herself with post-independence politics in Guyana and elsewhere in the Caribbean region, teaching literacy in Grenada and working at the Jamaica School of Drama, while beginning to write short stories.[3]

As a performer, Melville was most active during the 1980s, appearing in such films as Mona Lisa and The Long Good Friday, along with television roles that include appearances in the sitcoms The Young Ones and Girls on Top.[5][6]


According to Gadfly Online, "Much of Melville's writing is inspired by the people and events she observed while growing up in Guyana, a former British colony which didn't become independent until 1966. As a little girl and a teenager, Melville witnessed the complicated social problems of a nation locked in a desperate struggle to modernize and overcome its imperialist past. Today, an astounding number of cultures coexist in the region, in varying degrees of amicability, from European to Amerindian and African to East Indian, and the Guyanese have dealt with poverty, pollution and shortages of basic commodities, including electrical power."[7]

Melville herself said in a 2010 interview: "Being a writer is like being a window-cleaner in a house or a castle where the windows are obscured by dirt and grime. Writing is like cleaning the windows so that people can see a view of the world they have never seen before."[8]

Shape-Shifter (1990)[edit]

Her first book, the collection of short stories Shape-Shifter, was published in 1990 and won several awards, including the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best First Book (for Western Hemisphere region and Overall Best-Full Commonwealth), the Guardian Fiction Prize,[9] and the PEN/Macmillan Silver Pen Award.[10] A number of the stories deal with post-colonial life in the Caribbean, particularly in her native Guyana, as well as of some stories being set in London. Many of her characters, most of them displaced people from former colonies struggling to come to terms with a new life in Britain, attempt to find an identity, to reconcile their past and to escape from the restlessness hinted at in the title. Salman Rushdie described the collection as "notably sharp, funny, original...part Caribbean magic, part London grime, written in a slippery, chameleon language that is a frequent delight". Other critical acclaim included a review in Publishers Weekly of "this startling debut collection" that concluded: "Melville transforms the mundane yet never loses sight of social inequities or of the pleasures of laughter."[11]

The Ventriloquist's Tale (1997)[edit]

Melville's first novel, The Ventriloquist's Tale (1997), won the Whitbread First Novel Award,[1] the Guyana Prize for Literature, and was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction. In the book – which one reviewer characterised as "a unique look at the conflicts of ancient and modern ways"[12] – Melville explores the nature of fiction and storytelling and writes about the impact of European colonisers on Guyanese Amerindians through the story of a brother and sister. According to Publishers Weekly: "In Melville's ambitious and richly realized debut set in modern-day Guyana, religious, social and philosophical tensions beset all the characters. ...Melville's nuanced characterizations, fluid prose, apt imagery and beautifully understated dialogue augment her skill as a raconteur. An unsentimental but moving narrative about the pain of longing, the book is mystical yet fiercely rationalist, ideological while coolly above politics ... brilliant, witty and complicated."[13] Jay Parini wrote in The New York Times: "In this magnificent novel, Melville shows herself to be a discerning observer and a gifted satirist, the kind who takes no prisoners."[14]

The Migration of Ghosts (1998)[edit]

Her 1998 short-story collection, The Migration of Ghosts, is a book of complex layered tales of physical and emotional displacement. According to one reviewer: "A magnificent sense of pacing is the first of Melville's skills that impresses the reader of this mesmerizing collection. The second is her gift for voices ... she has an amazing range, from West Indians in London celebrating carnival, to the self-conscious, resentful Macusi Indian brought by her literal-minded British husband to a wedding in London, to the irritable Canadian wife whose husband has been sent to Guyana for two years to serve as unofficial liar for a mining corporation. Magic realism is the label most readers and critics will paste on Melville's work ... it is an appropriate but incomplete description. The dozen stories spill over with musical chaos and sly humor.... The magic in Melville's eccentric tales is neither good nor bad, white nor black, but the magic of the teeming pluralness and the many possibilities of life."[15]

Eating Air (2009)[edit]

Melville's novel Eating Air, published in 2009, was called by The Independent "a virtuoso performance, playing with a gallimaufry of characters".[16] Lavinia Greenlaw wrote in the Financial Times: "The world of Pauline Melville’s fiction is one in which people slip in and out of place. It is full of shadows, transgressions and dark secrets. In her second novel, Eating Air, it is a remarkably wide world, flitting from south London to Italy, Brazil to Surinam, across the past 30 years. ... What makes this novel compelling is the way one person leads us to the next, and how we move out of the frame only to find ourselves back at the centre. ...Melville does not need to rely on rhetoric or charm. Her clean style and detached vision allow us to concentrate on what these people actually do as opposed to what they set out to do. This is a book about the difference between intention and action – and how we are acted upon far more than we know."[17]

The Master of Chaos and Other Fables (2021)[edit]

Of her most recent book, The Master of Chaos and Other Fables, Salman Rushdie was quoted as saying: "In this virtuoso performance, Pauline Melville shows us a world in upheaval, and reminds us that that's where we live."[18] Benjamin Zephaniah writing in Vogue magazine praised the collection, saying: "There is love, politics, compassion, magic, and humour."[19] Selecting "Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary Discuss Their Suicides" from the book as recommended reading, Brandon Taylor of Electric Lit stated: "How deftly Pauline Melville scummons these characters.... It's a marvel of a story about stories that asks probing questions about agency and narrative and what it means to take one's story back for oneself. All told with charm and warm intelligence."[20]

Other literary activities and involvement[edit]

In 1992, her essay "Beyond the Pale" was included in the anthology Daughters of Africa, edited by Margaret Busby, as was the poem "Mixed", first published in David Dabydeen's 1998 Rented Rooms.[3][21]

In November 2012, Melville delivered a lecture entitled "Guyanese Literature, Magic Realism and the South American Connection" in the Edgar Mittelholzer Memorial Lecture series at the Umana Yana in Georgetown.[22]

Melville was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2018.[23][24]

Awards and honours[edit]


  • Shape-Shifter, London: Women's Press, 1990, ISBN 978-0-7043-5051-9; Pantheon Books, 1991, ISBN 978-0-679-40438-5
  • The Ventriloquist's Tale, London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 1997, ISBN 978-0-7475-3150-0; Bloomsbury USA, 1999, ISBN 978-1-58234-026-5
  • The Migration of Ghosts. London: Bloomsbury. 1998. ISBN 978-0-7475-3675-8.; Bloomsbury Publishing USA, 2000, ISBN 978-1-58234-074-6
  • Eating Air, London: Telegram, 2009, ISBN 978-1-84659-076-4
  • The Master of Chaos and Other Fables, Sandstone Press, 2021, ISBN 9781913207540





  1. ^ a b c Geoff Sadler, Pauline Melville Biography,
  2. ^ "Pauline Melville" Archived 1 March 2014 at the Wayback Machine, British Council – Literature.
  3. ^ a b c d e Maya Jaggi (2 January 2010). "Pauline Melville profile". The Guardian.
  4. ^ Cloyette Harris-Stoute, "Pauline Melville: First Guyanese to win the Commonwealth Writers’ (Best Overall) Prize", Guyanese Girls, 11 November 2013.
  5. ^ "Pauline Melville". British Comedy Guide. Retrieved 15 February 2022.
  6. ^ "Pauline Melville | Actress | Writer". IMDb. Retrieved 15 February 2022.
  7. ^ Tanya Stanciu (March 1999). "Tales of Love and Disaster". Gadfly Online. Retrieved 6 April 2022.
  8. ^ Interview by Anna Metcalfe, "Small Talk: Pauline Melville", Financial Times, 12 July 2010.
  9. ^ Pauline Melville at contemporary
  10. ^ Pauline Melville page at Bloomsbury Publishing.
  11. ^ "Shape Shifter". Publishers Weekly. 29 July 1991. Retrieved 15 February 2022.
  12. ^ Mary Whipple, "Pauline Melville–THE VENTRILOQUIST’S TALE" (review), Seeing the World Through Books, 17 January 2011.
  13. ^ "The Ventriloquist's Tale". Publishers Weekly. 3 August 1998. Retrieved 15 February 2022.
  14. ^ Parini, Jay (11 October 1988). "A Handful of Guyana – A novel that calls Evelyn Waugh back to set him straight". The New York Times.
  15. ^ "Migration of Ghosts" (review), Publishers Weekly, 29 March 1999.
  16. ^ Stevie Davis, "Eating Air, By Pauline Melville" (review), The Independent, 2 October 2009.
  17. ^ Lavinia Greenlaw (7 September 2009). "Eating Air". Financial Times.
  18. ^ "The Master of Chaos". Sandstone Press. Retrieved 15 July 2021.
  19. ^ Mukhtar, Amel (9 October 2021). "9 Of Vogue's Favourite Writers Share Their Black History Month Book Picks". Vogue. Retrieved 10 October 2021.
  20. ^ "Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary Discuss Their Suicides | Written by Pauline Melville | Recommended by Brandon Taylor". Electric Lit. 3 February 2021. Retrieved 15 February 2022.
  21. ^ Margaret Busby (ed.), Daughters of Africa: An International Anthology of Words and Writings by Women of African Descent from the Ancient Egyptian to the Present, London: Jonathan Cape, 1992, pp. 739–743.
  22. ^ (Video) Mittelholzer memorial lecture, Stabroek News, 30 November 2012.
  23. ^ "Pauline Melville". RSL Fellows. The Royal Society of Literature. Retrieved 15 July 2021.
  24. ^ Heloise Wood (4 June 2018). "Alderman and Gaiman made RSL fellows after 'unprecedented' intake". The Bookseller. Retrieved 15 July 2021.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]