by Courttia Newland
367pp, pbk, £7.99
review by Susannah Tarbush
It is often said there is nothing more agonising for a parent than the death of their child. But for Beverley Cottrell, first-person narrator of the novel The Gospel According to Cane by black British writer Courttia Newland, there is one thing even more agonising, and that is "being uncertain whether your child is alive or dead.”
Beverley has lived with this agony for 20 years, ever since her eight-month-old son Malakay was snatched from a locked car. Her husband Patrick had left the car outside a Chinese takeaway while he went inside to order food. Malakay disappeared without trace, and despite intensive police investigations, a blaze of media publicity and the offer of a reward there has been no clue as to his fate.
But now a young man claiming to be Malakay has appeared on the scene.
The arrival of Wills, as the young man is called, throws Beverley's life into turmoil and raises many questions. Is he indeed her long lost son or an imposter? And if he really is the missing Malakay, why is he adamant that the police should not be told of his reappearance? And how does a mother reconnect emotionally with a child she has not seen for two decades?
Beverley's circumstances have changed in many ways since Malakay disappeared. "That person, the woman I was, is not exactly gone as much as she has faded into the background, distant like a stationery object viewed from a speeding train" she says. Her marriage collapsed and her ex-husband Patrick has remarried and gone to live in the USA. The beautiful family house was sold, and she now lives in a flat on a tough council estate near Portobello Road, in the Notting Hill area of West London.
Beverley has a Bachelor of Education and at the time of Malakay's disappearance she was teaching English in a prestigious private secondary school. After her son vanished she gave up her job and went through a period of incapacitating grief and depression. Once she was better she volunteered to start holding writing classes for young people in a back room of a youth centre For the past 12 years she has now been running this After-School Club. At least she is not under pressure to find paid work: she benefited from the sale of the family house, and her late father provided well for her.
One of the strengths of The Gospel According to Cane is that Newland develops not only his central but also his secondary characters, fleshing them out with their complexities and ambivalences. Seth, a policeman Beverley first met when he was one of the team investigating Malakay's disappearance, is a close friend and sometimes lover.
Another support is Beverley's therapist Sue who helped her with her grief over Malakay's disappearance and whom she still sees. And Beverley has a long-standing friendship with an elderly white neighbour, Ida who frequently bakes sweet pies for Beverley or plays cards with her. Through Ida we see an older generation anxious about the challenging groups of youths hanging around the estate.
The Gospel According to Cane purports to be Beverley's written account of the turbulent chain of events set in train by the arrival in her life of Wills. Interwoven with the strong storyline are Beverley's memories of her childhood and youth, as well as disturbing dream sequences in which she and her parents and sister are in Barbados in slavery days, and her thoughts on matters including life, time and pain.
Beverley says "I write, but I am not a writer". Her concern is not narrative, character or chronological structure, but "the rearing of children in modern society, the ills a lack of proper parenting can produce - and "the strange phenomena of pain". People write because they want to make sense of their pain, she tells her After-School writing class.
Beverley also includes in her narrative short sections on neurophysiology, the structure of the brain and the manifestations of pain. For example the pia mater works with the other meningeal layers to protect and cushion the brain: the Latin means "tender mother".
a leading black fiction writer
The Gospel According to Cane is the fourth novel by Newland, one of Britain's leading black fiction writers. Newland was born in 1973 in West London to a father whose roots lie in Jamaica and a mother of Barbadian origin. He grew up in Shepherd's Bush, not far from the Notting Hill area in which The Gospel According to Cane is set.
Newland's acclaimed novels, short stories and dramas draw on the experiences of black Britons. His first novel The Scholar, published in 1997 when he was only 23, and the second, Society Within (2000), are set among young blacks on the fictional Greenside Estate in West London. His third novel Snakeskin (2002), a detective thriller in which a black MP's daughter is murdered, is also set in London. These three novels were published in the UK by Abacus.
The Gospel According to Cane is published in London by the Saqi fiction imprint Telegram and in New York by Akashic Books. Publishers Weekly contributing editor Calvin Reid has named the novel as one of the seven Notable African-American fiction titles 2012-13. Newland today begins a five-day visit to New York and Baltimore for four events to promote his new novel.
Over the years Newland has been nominated for several major literary awards and his short stories have appeared in a number of anthologies. He co-edited with Kadija George the 1991 anthology IC3: The Penguin Book of New Black Writing in Britain, and was co-editor, with Monique Roffey, of The Global Village: Tell Tales Volume 4 (Peepal Tree Press, 2009).
Newland's fourth novel looks set to further cement his reputation as a powerful chronicler of the life of black Britons, particularly the marginalised young living on estates. The Notting Hill area is one of the most mixed parts of London in terms of race and wealth. Some of the richest people in London live in multi-million mansions at some of the capital's most sought-after addresses, just metres away from deprived estates.
Notting Hill's multiculturalism is for many one of the most attractive features of the area. The annual Notting Hill carnival is a huge draw for Britons and tourists. But life in the area can be a long way from that portrayed in Notting Hill - the film starring Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts, in which hardly any black characters appear. As Deborah Orr wrote in the Independent newspaper at the time of the film's release: It's Notting Hill, but not as I know it. The ethnic minorities of the area suffer problems of high unemployment, discrimination and sometimes disproportionate police actions. There are gangs, knife and drug crime, and shootings.
Newland deftly builds the tension in this absorbing psychological thriller that arrests the attention throughout (I read the novel in virtually one sitting). The book is disquieting from the start, with Beverley noticing a tall boy with a sneer and lazy walk, clad in a black hoodie, who is staring at her and seems to be following her as she strolls the stalls of the Portobello Road outdoor market.
an old newspaper cutting
Beverley has an immediate sense of the significance of this boy. In the small hours of the night someone rattles her letterbox and knocks loudly on her front door. She thinks it is him, but does not answer the door. Some nights later he again knocks on her front door. He shouts through the letterbox that Beverley knows who he is, and as proof of his identity he feeds an old newspaper cutting through the letterbox. Beverley finds that the cutting dates from 20 April 1991: it is a report with photograph on the police press conference at which she and Patrick pleaded for help in finding their son.
As Wills speaks to Beverley through the letter box she cringes at his coarse, deep voice and his pronunciation and accent - "more like the kids I taught in the club than the one I imagined for years." She tells him he can't come in until morning and passes a blanket to him through letter box so he can try to sleep outside her door. Seeing him standing up, "he's huge, like his long-lost grandfather, like everyone on our side".
When she lets him in for breakfast she feels "nothing. No sensation, familiarity. We searched each other's features." But she soon grows euphoric, with sensations similar to those of falling in love.
Wills tells her about the person he says abducted him and brought him up. But he makes her promise not to tell the police about him. He tells her he's had been having trouble at the place where he has been living with a girl who is an old schoolfriend, and her boyfriend, and that he has recently been sleeping rough.
Beverley feels she can only confide in her closest family and friends that a young man claiming to be Malakay has turned up. Others are in the dark as to why this respected and much-liked teacher in her mid-40s suddenly has a male stranger less than half her age living with her.
Beverley's sole sibling, her sister Jackie, and her brother-in-law Frank are concerned. Sue is supportive but sceptical that Will is Malakay and encourages Beverley to arrange a DNA test. She points out that even if Wills is Beverley's son, he is probably psychologically damaged by his upbringing and may have mental health issues and could even be dangerous. At one point she asks Beverley whether she is more worried that a DNA test would be positive than negative.
Beverley is not a wholly reliable narrator, prone to omissions and contradictions in her account of events. As the story unfolds there are signs that Wills can be violent - but is this just an understandable reaction from a young man who feels cornered and misunderstood, or is she too prepared to make excuses?
race and class
Newland explores questions of race and class in the novel, but in a far from heavy-handed way. Beverley's father was upwardly mobile: he drove a Mercedes and sent Beverley to a private school. He tells her he developed a process involved in the manfuacture of edible fat, and that this is the foundation of the family he has worked so hard to support. Beverley's sister Jackie and brother-in-law Frank are both university lecturers. Their encounters with Beverley and Wills are cringe-inducing, Jackie telling Beverley that Wills is not family but "a feral child, just like those kids you teach."
Beverley's dreams about her family's roots in Barbados seem to carry guilt. She recounts these vivid, often horrific, dreams to Sue. She feels that her family were freed slaves and helped plantation owners maintain the slavery system by selling them shackles, chains and so on, leading to the family being hated by fellow Africans. In one dream Beverley gets caught up in a terrifying fire deliberately started in a cane field.
Beverley tells Sue that when hearing the youths at her After-School club talk about their lives she realises how much her parents shielded her, in emphasising books and sport and education and in being there for their daughters. When Sue points out that Beverley has no evidence her family was involved in the slave trade Beverley says her family has been wealthy for generations, and its other members are, like Beverley, light-skinned: "You don't get either way in the Caribbean without a bit of dabbling."
Those around Beverley are wary and suspicious of the young man who has inveigled himself into her life and flat and she becomes somewhat isolated. The presence of Wills drives a wedge between Ida and Beverley.
The members of Beverley's After-School Club are particularly wary of this "brudda" who has moved into Beverley's flat. Newland draws these youngsters well, capturing their slang and banter with the authenticity of an insider. Beverley, clearly a dedicated teacher, describes perceptively their different personalities and the group dynamics. She gets them to write: they express themselves fluently and often with real talent in language influenced by rap and hip hop. She encourages them to read authors such as Raymond Carver, and George Pelecanos.
They have a protectiveness and affection towards Beverley, while keeping her on her toes with their liveliness and humour, but their respect for her is at risk as they grow to suspect there is a sexual element to her relationship with Wills. "Tell the truth, you're pipin that yout, innit?" one of them says.
Given the subject matter and setting of The Gospel According to Cane and the skill with which it is written, it would not be surprising if it was adapted into a film or TV drama. And there is a precedent: the TV drama West 10 LDN broadcast as a pilot on BBC 3 was based on the interconnected stories in Newland's second novel Society Within. The drama can be viewed in instalments on YouTube.