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Derek Walcott

Fiction | Novel/Book in Verse | Adult | Published in 1990

Plot Summary

Epic poem Omeros by Derek Walcott weaves multiple narratives about the indigenous and colonized peoples of St. Lucia Island using characters loosely based on Homer's Iliad. It was first published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 1990 and is divided into seven books and 64 chapters.

Most of the poem takes place during the 20th century, but certain narrative threads detail scenes from the past. One diversion from the present takes place in 1782 during the Battle of the Saintes. Another follows Native American rights activist Caroline Wheldon in the 19th century.

The first narrative opens with several fishermen beginning their day. Fisherman Philoctete discusses the art of making canoes with tourists, and then he goes to retrieve medicine for his rotting leg wound. He got the injury from an anchor, and he believes it continues to fester as a reminder of his ancestors' enslavement.

Ma Kilman runs the No Pain Cafe where Philoctete buys his medicine. Later, Ma follows a line of ants into the forest and finds a plant that she gives to Philoctete. The medicinal plant of Philoctete's ancestors connects him to his heritage, and his leg wound heals.

Two fishermen, Hector and Achille, argue over a bailing cup that Achille failed to return. They're also fighting over the affections of Helen.

Helen, like Helen of Troy, is a local beauty. She functions as both the character and as a representation of the island. She has a muddy work history and seems to be always in search of a job. She was working as a waitress but was fired because she claims she wouldn't let the men fondle her. She also worked as a housemaid at Major Dennis Plunkett's farm but was caught stealing his wife's dress.

Major Plunkett and Maud have been married for 25 years. The two moved to the islands after Plunkett sustained a head wound in World War II. He feels guilty for playing the part of the colonizer in his military days.

Plunkett is obsessed with Helen and the island and sets about trying to discover the history of the place so that he may empower the indigenous people. He discovers along the way that he had an ancestor, Midshipman Plunkett, who died when the British were defending the island against the French and American invaders. Having no children, he takes his dead, 19-year-old ancestor on as his son. Maud later dies of cancer, and Plunkett becomes more immersed in the indigenous community.

Achille and Helen have a violent fight in the marketplace, and Hector takes her into his van and drives away.

Achille tries several money-making ventures to win Helen. He illegally dives for conch shells to sell to tourists and even ties a cinder block to his feet in an attempt to find sunken treasure.

Achille gets a bad case of sun exposure and dehydration. He hallucinates that he's on his ancestral African settlement. There, he hears his original language, true name, and participates in the ancient culture before walking back to St. Lucia on the ocean floor. This experience causes Achille to feel more connected to his ancestors and his traditional fishing methods. Helen returns to him.

Walcott explains in the first-person narrative that he is telling a tale in the style of Homer ("Omeros" in Greek), but instead of telling the story of heroes, he'll tell the story of fishermen. He's inspired both by Omeros and by his ex-lover Antigone. Omeros is also sometimes referred to as Seven Seas, a blind fisherman who mentors Walcott and shows him his "inner sight."

Walcott visits his childhood home and meets the ghost of his father, Warwick. The two discuss old times and wander around the neighborhood. Warwick entreats Walcott to write about the island and his people. In another meeting, Warwick convinces Walcott to travel to Europe and visit the great literary capitals.

In the 18th century, St. Lucia was known as "the Helen of the West Indies" due to its fraught history. Because it is strategically located near North America, it was occupied by the French and the English at different times.

The poem was named one of the "Best Books of 1990" by The New York Times Book Review, and named one of Walcott's "finest poetic works." It won the 1991 WH Smith Literary Award and was mentioned when Walcott was awarded the Nobel Prize of Literature. The New Yorker's Hilton Als called the book "Walcott's masterpiece... the perfect marriage of Walcott's classicism and nativism.

Connecting to ancestral roots is a significant theme in the book. Walcott writes the poem as a way to connect with St. Lucia's past and present. He meets with his dead father and travels so that he may discover his literary roots. Achille hallucinates and finds himself in the home of his ancestors, and Philoctete suffers from a wound representative of the struggles of his people. Likewise, even the colonizer Plunkett discovers the story of his ancestor, Shipman Plunkett.

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