SWITCHBACK REVIEW

Courttia Newland Explores London’s Social Rifts in The Gospel According to Cane

Andrew Blackman

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.

‘Now I saw the things I’d missed; his hands, large like bush leaves, the fleshy forearms and huge width of his shoulders, like rolling green hills. The raw earth of his skin. The mistlike curl of his hair. He was wild as the land of our heritage, but that land was also lush, and gentle, welcoming and warm. There was all the harsh environment and soft nature of the continent in the boy who’d knocked on my door, he couldn’t help that. It flowed through him like black gold.’

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:

‘Arachnoiditis is a condition in which the arachnoid mater becomes inflamed. A number of causes, including infection or trauma, can result in the inflammation. Arachnoiditis can be known to produce disabling, progressive, and even permanent pain.’

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
ISBN: 978-1-61775-133-2

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~ by courttianewland on 25/01/2013.

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