Monday, January 28, 2013

Review: The Gospel According to Cane by Courttia Newland

The Gospel According to Cane by Courttia Newland (Telegram)

Beverley Cottrell lives alone in a tiny flat, once a week teaching an evening class in Creative Writing to local troubled and disadvantaged teenagers. It's a kind of equilibrium after her previous life - a full-time teaching job, a lawyer husband and weeks-old son Malaky - was blown apart when Malaky was stolen from her husband's parked car, never to be found again. But while desperate to make connection with her students and seeming to do so - calling them 'my kids' - Beverley is troubled by their seething, chiefly suppressed violence. In addition, she has disturbing dreams in which her family (light-skinned and 'wealthy for generations') are displaced to their ancestral Caribbean past. In these dreams her real-life parents are freed slaves involved in the slave trade and hated by the other Africans; fleeing the vengeance of the latter, Beverley is trapped in a forest of sugar canes. Then one day in her hum-drum real life she realises she's being stalked by a youth who eventually breaches the security door in her block of flats and comes knocking and claiming to be her long-lost son.

Is he really her son? Beverley is sure of it, knows it even before he comes knocking and saying who he is - though when she first notices him, not only does the thought not occur to her, she is afraid of him. Others, including her family, are dubious or sure he can't be. The novel is a study in ambiguity, an ambiguity brought into stark relief by a shocking conclusion. The book takes the form of Beverley's journal, written to 'make sense of the pain', and the events and memories are strikingly interspersed with text-book definitions of physical pain. There's an energy to the prose, though at times I found the language, in particular the dialogue, coy, and consequently Beverley's psychology and emotions as a mother faced with her regained but stranger son seemed incompletely realised. But there is no doubt that the novel keeps you guessing, gripped to know the outcome, and it's a striking exploration of the ambiguities of loss and love and of the ancestral legacies of betrayal, schism and belonging: the gospel according to cane.

3 comments:

Iva King said...
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Anonymous said...

So was wills her son or not? I didn't get the ending

Elizabeth Baines said...

It's a few months now since I read this. As far as I remember, the matter is left unresolved - the point being, I think, that belonging and not-belonging are complex and ambiguous issues.