It is undeniable that an attractive cover will grab the reader’s attention. They are usually designed in a way that prompts us to choose them. A successfully designed book cover conveys the tone of the book and provides some clues about its content, prompting the reader to pick it up. Such a book for me was Austin Clarke’s The Polished Hoe.
The novel, written in 2002, is the winner of the 2022 Scotiabank Giller Prize, the 2003 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for best book for Canada and the Caribbean region, and the 2003 Trillium Book Award. What initially attracted me to the book was its cover, which depicts the torso of the main character, Mary-Mathilda.
Mary Gertrude Mathilda Paul is a well-respected woman from Barbados who decides to confess to the murder of her husband. What unfolds is a powerful confession of her crime to an old friend of hers, Percy, who is now a Sergeant. The events of the novel take place over the span of twenty-four hours, set in the 1950s post World War II era.
The representation of women in book covers is an often discussed topic, loaded with questions of commerce, sex and power. The cover is powerful due to the tension between the strong strokes of the black female body and suppleness of the fabric, its mesmerising stillness perfectly reflected. As I looked at it, I could not help but fix my gaze on the woman’s right hand, placed behind her back. The question that came to my mind is what this figure is hiding. This ambiguity drew me to pick up the book and find out.
Mary-Mathilda inhabits a world where sex and bodies are currency. There is an obvious eroticism to the image with the curves of Mary-Mathilda’s flesh. Her dress seems heavy as a thundercloud and the white cloth looks cold and inanimate. The cover looks like the aftermath of something violent. Mary-Mathilda’s body is almost like a moving sculpture, in the sense that it expresses her unruly desires, pleasure and violence. In my opinion, the sensation of alienation imparted by the view of the cover is what makes it memorable.
Clarke’s work presents the body as a political agent, as a platform for voicing one’s trauma. By being portrayed as semi-nude, Mary-Mathilda invites the viewer to consider her position and the cultural loads concerning the body. The cover illustrates all that makes us human: our tangled, changeable and unattainable desires.