Friday 8 April 2016

A cupboard full of coats by Yvvette Edwards

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What we thought: Yvvette Edwards’ debut novel, A cupboard full of coats, was longlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2011, but it’s only now, with the release of her second novel, The Mother, that I have got around to reading it.

A cupboard full of coats is a story of domestic abuse and the way its consequences reverberate down through the years. We see events unfold, not through the eyes of the abused woman, but through the eyes of her daughter, Jinx – sixteen at the time of her mother’s murder and now thirty – and Lemon (short for Philemon), a family friend.

The adult Jinx is emotionally shut down, her relationship with her son and ex-husband in tatters, when Lemon arrives on her doorstep, determined to unearth the past she has tried so hard to bury. Bit by bit, we piece together the events that led up to her mother’s death. As the heartbreaking significance of that cupboard full of coats is revealed, we start to glimpse Jinx and Lemon’s own roles in the tragedy.

A cupboard full of coats explores, in a gentle, nuanced way, the nature of obsessive love, jealousy, guilt, remorse and responsibility.

Edwards has a gift for finding fresh ways of describing commonplace emotions. Here is sixteen year old Jinx trying to come to terms with all the ways her mother’s boyfriend moving in has disrupted life with her mother.

“The mirror in my hand was bigger than my head, yet it was too small to see everything I wanted to see, to see all the things I needed to see in order to get my head around the things in my life that it was impossible to get my head around.”

The novel is set in Hackney in East London, but the older generation of characters are all immigrants from the tiny Caribbean island of Monserrat, and the language and rhythms of the island permeate the story. Food plays a central role – the scents and tastes of the food Lemon cooks, creating a bridge between Jinx and her past. Saltfish cakes and plantain, “red mullet, perfectly fried, crisp and salty on the outside, moist and steaming on the inside.” Sorrel and Guinness punch. Pumpkin soup, “saffron coloured and bursting with flavour, with small soft pieces of yam and sweet potato and green banana and tania seed and chewy torpedo dumplings.”

“It was the smell that woke me. Heaven scent. Both alien and familiar at the same time. First it permeated the air, then pervaded my nostrils, then made its way down into my gut where it took hold and wrenched hard, and I found myself simultaneously hungry and awake.”

Edwards’ writing is profoundly sensual–whether she is describing Lemon dancing, plaiting cornrows into Jinx’s hair, or the coats themselves, still carrying the lingering scent of her mother, moulding to her naked shape as perfectly as second skin.

The Mother in some ways reverses the story in A cupboard full of coats – focusing on a mother dealing with the murder of her son. After finishing this one, I can’t wait to read it.

A tender telling of an all-too-common tragedy, and one that seems to promise the possibility of healing and redemption.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Gospel According to Cane by Courttia Newland, The Round House by Louise Erdich, Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

Avoid If You Dislike: stories about domestic violence.

Perfect Accompaniment: A bowl of rich pumpkin soup

Genre: Literary Fiction

Available from Amazon

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