JAMAICA GLEANER REVIEW
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.