I’m very excited to be launching The Gospel According to Cane in New York and Baltimore for BHM. For U.S. book lovers, please join myself and fellow Akashic author Bernice McFadden for a series of readings and events.
For the latest up to date schedule, please click here.
My first interview for #thegospelaccordingtocane with Jacqui Grant on Colourful FM, it’s 2013-01-31-1200 about 15 or so mins in: http://www.colourfulradio.com/presenter/jacquigrant/
Courttia Newland Explores London’s Social Rifts in The Gospel According to Cane
Courttia Newland first made a name for himself when his debut novel, The Scholar, was released in 1997, and has been called “one of Britain’s most important young black novelists” by Time Out London. His next book, The Gospel According to Cane, is the first to be published by a U.S. publisher, Brooklyn-based Akashic Books.
Although the title has instant Biblical connotations, the book itself is not a chronicle of mankind’s first murderer. It is the story of a middle-class British woman, whose eight-month-old son, Malakay, is kidnapped from a parked car, and of what happens two decades later when a young man turns up on her doorstep claiming to be that long-lost son.
What could be a simple, emotive story of grief and redemption becomes, in Newland’s hands, something more complex. No proof is ever offered of whether Malakay’s story is true. It is left to the reader to decide how much truth is contained in the first-person narrative of bereaved mother Beverley. When she rejects the advice of those around her and refuses to take a DNA test, the question becomes not only whether the story is true, but whether it matters. Beverley has got a son again after so many years, and she won’t let anyone, no matter how well-intentioned, take him away from her.
Having been brought up by strangers, her son has acquired a new name, Wills, and a murky history peppered with violence and expulsions. Beverley is tentative about reuniting with him, evoking descriptions of him and the Caribbean, the land of her parents, the place she carries within her but has never known.
The narrative takes the form of journal entries, and the story of Beverley and Wills is interrupted by musings and to-do lists, by dreams and factual statements on the nature of pain. In her dreams, Beverley is back in her ancestral homeland of Barbados, in the days of slavery, watching her father sell shackles and chains to a white man who deliberately humiliates him. The imagery is of violence and pain, fear and suffocation: fires, barking dogs, blood, fangs, and finally being trapped in a giant spider’s web, while savage dogs and their owners close in. The “Cane” of the book’s title takes on a new meaning, as Beverley is trapped among the long stalks of sugar cane her ancestors suffered so much to cut.
This suffering echoes into the present day through the frequent journal entries on pain, which sound as if they have been copied straight from a neuroscience textbook:
The entries raise the specter of an ancestral anguish that has crossed continents and generations, begging the question: how free are we to escape from our pasts?
The Gospel According to Cane is also a novel with much to say about contemporary life in London. The London riots two summers ago exposed gaping social rifts that the following summer’s Olympics only partially covered up. The sudden outburst of anger by predominantly young Londoners was met with fear, resentment, and a call for increasingly draconian responses. London became fragmented along generational and class lines. The only thing that was clear was just how little both sides understood each other.
The social rupture is reflected in the novel, with Beverley’s long-lost son mirroring society’s so-called “lost generation.” Beverley is our guide into this world of knife-wielding teens in London’s grim housing estates, but her own position is unstable. As an estate resident and teacher of creative writing to under-privileged kids, she has more insight than most, but she is older and set apart, afraid of the kids she teaches, afraid even of her own son.
As the novel speeds towards its violent conclusion, Beverley comes to realize that she must make difficult choices if she is to keep the boy after his magical return. It’s a moving evocation of the difficulty of assimilating a son back into a life that has changed in his long absence, and also a thought-provoking social allegory.
From Beverley’s precarious vantage point, we get a representation of inner-city London life that is far more nuanced and compassionate than much of what has been printed since the 2011 riots. Wills and the other kids in the book are not condemned, but neither are they idealized. The Gospel According to Cane is a page-turner, merging serious literary fiction with social commentary. Those interested in a fresh, vibrant take on contemporary London life should add it to their shelves.
The Gospel According to Cane
By Courttia Newland
Akashic Books, February 5, 2013
Title: The Gospel According to Cane
Author: Courttia Newland
Publisher: Akashic Books, 2013
Reviewer: Dr Glenville Ashby
Courttia Newland blazes a literary path difficult to challenge, with a style so crisp, searing, and profoundly philosophical. His Gospel According to Cane is grippingly disturbing, pulled from the depth of human despair and sheer madness, possibly best understood in the realm of psychiatry.
The author’s cutting prose syncs with a wrenching woe of a tale. A thoroughbred of an undertaking, it is. Newland changes gear with prosaic ease, luring readers with philosophies of timelessness (where the past, present and future collide in a single moment). He mollifies the spirit with cries of desperation, and arouses the imagination with scintillating scenes of erotica. Newland’s mastery is undeniable.
The Gospel According to Cane wields a hypnotic theme before readers.
Beverly Cottrell, the main character, is thunderstruck with the unthinkable – the abduction of her infant, Malakay, snatched under the nose of her husband. But she is hardly done. She fights back, sometimes in ways that horrify readers. No one can support “doing away” with the family pet (her ex husband’s dog, she rationalises).
But then again, no one can understand her depth of pain, and her guilt, that are manifold, multilayered. The author breathes a fire of resistance through her every vein, ensuring her “rebirth”. She buckles, but never caves in. Newland’s principal character looms large, overpowering the intriguing Malakay, her son, who reappears as Wills. Yet, the author does not overplay his hand, avoiding the risk of creating a sullen attention-seeker, twistedly basking in victimhood.
In one volatile scene, Patrick, the beleaguered husband, lashes out: “I am suffering too, you know? You think I don’t feel regret? Don’t think about it? He was my son too. He was my flesh and blood and I know I was there, but we all lose focus. We all lapse. I’m human, Beverly, what the hell do you expect?”
Surely, there is enough pain to go around. They both move on – they have to, if only to keep insanity at bay, and survive.
But healing takes time, lots of it. Beverly is tortured with dreams of a colonial past where her family is part of a disquieting script, playing the role of “quislings” on a Barbadian plantation. The dreams evolve into scenes of mayhem. Her mother and sister succumb. Beverly’s dreams cannot be taken at face value. With strong psychoanalytic overtones, the author allows his character an escape route. Dreams are her catharsis – her path to healing, to extirpate a bedeviling and complex past, now compounded by the abduction. This is classic Jungian.
The author is clearly not content with Beverly’s after-school instruction to at-risk kids as her only means to recovery. Not to minimise the significance of her work. Her students are her shadows, her mirror. They are part of an existential mess. Of the world, one mentee opines on paper: “… some will shoot, shot, or get shot, or get got, a world made of kettles and pots, all pointing, all call forlorn, forearmed, forewarning, destined to play the same way… .”
Oh, teacher and students are a complimentary labyrinth – edgy, and tortuous, but part of a relationship that is more than pedagogical. It has some therapeutic value. And so, too, are Beverly’s primitive sexual urges that explode, now and again. She must, and will claw her way to inner salvation. Call it a survivalist instinct, or, grace, bestowed on a few. After the trauma of the abduction, she confides in a therapist, assumes her maiden name, sells her house, and volunteers – marshalling her strength to recreate herself.
Still haunted 20 years later, her son finds her, and a new chapter begins. The pain assuages, but she is still far from grounded. She must be sure that he is who he claims to be. She digs deep to find the truth, mindful of not alienating him, losing him forever, this time. She loves him, at all cost, alienating her family and students in the process.
The stage is set for a climatic end, a crescendo that leaves readers aghast.
Yes, this ‘Gospel’ is resoundly spellbinding.
Expectedly, Newland’s work is riddled with timeless aphorisms, reminders that Beverly uses towards healing, viz., “Pain and pleasure do not exist beyond oneself. They are entirely built-in personal sensations.”
But equally telling are the unmentioned words of St Paul: “For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
The life of Beverly Cottrell may have fulfilled that saint’s promise, and more.
Rating: Highly recommended
Follow Glenville Ashby on Twitter @glenvilleashby, or email email@example.com.
I’ve been invited by Zelda Rhiando, author and recent winner of the £10,000 Kidwell-e Book prize for her amazing debut Caposcripti (find her site at www.badzelda.com) to take the Next Big Thing questionnaire, where authors talk about what they’re publishing next.
So I did.
What is the title of your next book?
The Gospel According to Cane, which is published on 5th Feb 2013. I’m also working on a collection of sci fi shorts called Cosmogramma, a title I ‘borrowed’ from the musician Flying Lotus.
Where did the idea for the books come from?
The Gospel According to Cane – I was watching TV and the thought hit me – what if I could use the abduction of a child as an allegory for the so-called ‘lost generation’ and the gap between them and members of society considered ‘normal’
And Cosmogramma – I’ve been wanting to try out sci fi for awhile and I had 3 shorts lying about and then I wrote one more called Scarecrow and I thought – ‘Well, I’m liking this.’ So I kept on. Re-reading Octavia Butler’s Bloodchild and Robert Sheckley’s Store of the World certainly didn’t hurt.
What genre do your books fall under?
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
In Gospel, Thandie Newton and Idriss Elba as the leads. Can’t think who would play the boy – too many good young Black actors out there nowadays!
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your books?
The Gospel According to Cane – Beverley Cottrell has finally managed to piece her life together after her 8 month old son was abducted twenty years ago, only to see a young man who stalks her everywhere she goes, who claims to be her long-lost son.
Am still working on Cosmogramma so I don’t have one yet…
Will your books be self-published or represented by an agency?
Gospel… is published by Akashic in the US and Telegram in the UK. Cosmogramma could be self-published, not sure yet.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscripts?
Six months and at least four years and counting respectively.
What other books would you compare the story to within your genre?
If you like Percival Everett, Richard Price, Annie Proux or Siri Hustvedt’s The Summer Without Men, you might like Gospel.
Who or What inspired you to write them?
The idea that I have to dig deep; say what I really mean; write for myself without thought of being published, being clever, or being a celeb – just write from the heart.
What else about your books might pique the reader’s interest?
This is an immersion into a world that is rarely seen in fiction, and hopefully a wild ride! I want the reader to forget they’re reading and actually live with these characters. If you believe that good writing doesn’t necessarily negate having a page turning plot, then you should have a read of this latest novel. It’s intense but there’s a lot of hope.
A mother’s love is unbreakable, as Frank O’Connor Award–nominee Newland (The Scholar) demonstrates in his latest novel. Heartbroken after the abduction of her infant son, Beverley Cottrell blames both her husband, who left their son Malakay in the car alone, and herself for not being able to protect and raise Malakay. She rebuffs her family and finds solace in teaching at-risk teenagers in her neighborhood. When a young man claiming to be her son returns after 20 years, her life becomes unexpectedly more strained than before. The storytelling is as captivating as the story itself. Newland, a Jamaican-born British writer, seamlessly integrates the joy, fear, uncertainty, and sadness of Beverley and Malakey’s reunion while nimbly addressing the feelings of jealousy and protectiveness that grip those closest to Beverley after her presumed son’s return. VERDICT Newland’s prose is beautiful. His novel—part homecoming narrative in the vein of Toni Morrison’s Beloved and part haunting tale of loss similar to Ernest Gaines’s In My Father’s House—will appeal to all lovers of literary fiction.
—Ashanti White, Univ. of North Carolina, Greensboro