Review of The Gospel According to Cane by Courttia Newland

I’ve just finished reading The Gospel according to Cane by Courttia Newland. A heartrending story about a woman, called Beverley Cottrell of West Indian parentage who has her son taken from her some twenty years ago. She is educated, previously married and taught English in a prestigious private school, a woman who seemed to have everything but as a result of this tragic action, the experience leaves her damaged, single and withdrawn. We meet her presently living in a house alone, teaching kids at an after school club and attending therapy sessions until one day, a young man comes knocking at her door claiming to be her son. She receives this son named Wills gladly but does it repair the damage done to her, to Wills?  The Gospel According to Cane

The prose is mature and juxtaposes nicely with the street slang spoken by her son, and the children she teaches. The characters whether it is the protagonist or secondary characters, are nicely drawn. In fact one of the characters, Ida jumps to my mind. She is so real. A woman of a certain age who probably was born after the second world war; she is happy to entertain Beverley in her home, happy to bake her a cake but is still ambivalent about the black ‘youth’ and black people and  when there is a kerfuffle on the landing between Beverley, Wills her sister Jackie and her husband Frank, she remains hidden behind the ‘blankness’ of her front door and retreats into her reserve. Then there is Frank. We don’t see him too much but when he appears with his dominant and bitter wife, Jackie, you like that he is there, acting as a go-between between the two sisters, attempting to play down the tension which exists between them. Also Newland subtly establishes the fact there are segments of the black community that are middle class i.e, they are aware of Arnica and they shop at up market supermarkets and are concerned about speaking English, properly. This is shown through Beverley, who finds badly spoken English irritating.

Newland deftly handles writing of woman in a very convincing way; it simply shows how sensitive and how understanding he is of women. The book has no chapters but initially it is interspersed by descriptions of pain although from the middle of the book to the end you see no more of these descriptions. Throughout the story, these small explanations on pain make us realize that it is, almost a facet of life. We can experience sometimes, all sorts and levels of pain and realize how time can be a proper anesthetic. In the main character Beverley, this is clearly shown. She journals regularly, as a way of expelling the pain and in return, she achieves some cathartic moments. It’s funny. Prior to me buying this book, my husband purchased the  book Singularity is here by Ray Kurzweil. It is about how our intelligence will one day become ‘trillions’ more intelligent and increasingly non-biological. On top of that, time, whether the past, the present, the future, will become one. Singular. Then reading Newland’s book I come across this paragraph, thoughts of  Beverley :-

People say time is relative, a point with which I agree. …the nature of time as experienced by human beings is the amazing ability to occur simultaneously in the past, present and future. Everything on the planet, from the tiniest amoeba to humankind, has been is being and is also becoming. That we exist cocooned within an unseen element shifting faster than we can comprehend, that no sooner than we enter the present it is already the past and we are always, without pause, speeding full throttle towards the future. Ponder this, if I lift my finger and touch the end of my nose, I am touching my nose in the present, have touched my nose in the past and about to lower my finger from my nose in the future. All exist at once.

I don’t know if Courttia was/is conscious of this concept whilst writing his novel but it is profound and in keeping with all things to do with Singularity.  Overall, this was an interesting read: I loved the beautiful prose, the descriptions of the characters but if I have to make one criticism it would be the ending. However, Newland is definitely a chronicler of the Black British experience; I believe this is the fourth book I’ve read by this author and trust that he can write our experiences honestly, with maturity and with sensitivity. I can’t wait to read his next book.

Week 8: Synchronicity or what?

After completing Week 8 something happened. I just happened to be browsing an on-line newspaper and tucked at the bottom of the page was a request for readers to write about experiences that have happened to them; experiences they have fictionalized.  I quickly went to my ‘recent documents’ on Word and looked at stuff that I had written some time ago. I found a story that was close to the word count requested and spent a week tweaking and altering.  When I felt it was close to perfection (just kidding) I submitted the story, with a part of me asking myself why was I doing this? Did I really think they would select this?  Five days later I receive an email from the editor telling me that he had selected my story to be published in the next edition of the newspaper.  I could not believe it!  It had made my day, it had made my week.

Clearly, The Artist’s Way is an amazing book.

The Artist’s Way – Does it really work?

The Artist's Way

I realize this is the wrong time to mention The Artist’s Way as I’m currently on Week 5. Never mind so what am I experiencing? Anything profound?  Difficult to say only except that no matter what I feel that I have to keep going. I bought this book over a year ago and just watched it collect dust while it was on my book shelf.  Then one day, I said to myself that ‘tomorrow’ will be the day that I will start this thing! And so I did.  I did my Morning Pages, sometimes the Artist’s Date, occasionally the tasks and had to keep reminding myself to do the Check-ins, and then I stopped, without giving myself any reason.  This year, I promised that I would restart it and complete it. When I completed Week 2 I understood why I stopped last year. I was afraid.  Afraid that this book could impose some changes that I was not ready to handle. The strange thing was that after Week 3, I went for a walk to the nearby park and three Rottweiler’s charged towards me! As I stood facing the gate of house, hanging on and screaming my head off for dear life (as I really thought I was going to meet my maker!), two of the dogs ran past but the other one bit my calf.

Shaken, I went to a house and took refuge in the property until the dogs were harnessed put away. An exchange took place between me and the owner of the dogs. She apologized for what happened but was very defensive about her dogs. She insisted on taking me to the hospital and paying for any medication. I was given a cocktail of tetanus, anti-rabies and antibiotic injections plus a number of tablets. I found out several days later the owner lied about her dogs being up to date with their shots. But anyway, I am fine. But it got me thinking. Synchronicity? Even before coming across this word in the Artist’s Way I was never a believer in ‘coincidence’.  So the question I put to myself was did I bring this negative experience into my life, and if so, why? I still don’t know the answer (unless any of you guys can tell me).  But I pray that as I continue with this journey which I want so much to work that the ‘excavation’ does not unearth anything else profound.

Week 4, I found myself writing more than just three pages. Writing a letter to myself when I’m 85 and writing a letter from myself at eight years old I found totally cathartic.  The experience stayed with me for the entire day, and just kept me thinking about my past. My past was not all that great but I guess I have learnt to bury all the debris deep within, believing that I would not have face it but in Week 4 I did.  I’ll keep you posted.

Stephen Kelman; Pigeon English – More like Broken English and broken spirits

Well I have read Stephen Kelman’s book – Pigeon English and noticed that it has been shortlisted for the Man Booker prize.  Maybe I’m just a jealous frustrated writer or maybe I need to get real and see some of the themes he writes about of my community instead of me trying to write the decent things that do exist in places like Tottenham.  But instead, this is a book that even before you get to the end you know damn well there is not going to be good ending.

Pigeon English is about a young boy who arrives from Ghana settles in an estate that could be Broadwater Farm; a story which features black Brit-on-black African crime, a story that makes you think about the murder of Damilola Taylor, a story which makes you think what it is to be young and black in modern day London. A story about parents/adults who are not engaged with the kids.

I guess my usual moan is what would a white middle aged man know about black youth?  Okay, so the author grew up in a council estate but does that mean he has understanding of what it is like to be black/Ghanaian?  It almost seems as if there is an idiot’s guide to black people that is available somewhere that writers of a different race and colour can imagine and write what they think it must be like to be black! I wonder if I could get away with as much.

But my really biggest moan is the ending. How dare Kelman conclude the story in such a way which suggests that for the black/ethnic youth there is no hope? The actions of the looters in the recent riots in England, already tell us that a lot of the youth are not engaged in their environments so I don’t think it helps to have literature that affirms that. Instead, the book could show how overcoming ‘adversity builds character,and character in turn builds hope’.  I just wonder if a young person from a certain background were supposed to read this book, if they wouldn’t find it despondent, because I certainly did.