Friday, 25 March 2016

The Gospel According to Cane by Courttia Newland

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

The Gospel According to Cane shares its kernel with stories such as Martin Guerre, or Josephine Tey’s Brat Farrer – a stranger who turns up claiming to be a lost love one, in this case a child snatched when he was still a baby. Yet it contains much deeper resonances.

It is twenty years since Beverley Cottrell’s son, Malakay, was snatched, and although she has lost home, husband, job – she has managed to make a kind of life for herself, teaching creative writing to disadvantaged kids at a youth centre. But her frail balance is disturbed when she spots a young man in the street, staring at her, following her. Against the opposition of everyone around her, she becomes convinced that this is her son, returned to her.

The book is written as a series of almost haphazard journal entries by Beverley. In amongst the present day narrative are memories of her childhood, memories of her marriage and the loss of Malakay, dream sequences that take her back to the slavery era in the Caribbean, scientific analyses of pain perception – and a scattering of passages that only make sense when the book reaches its shocking climax.

The title appears to be a play on words. The Gospel According to Cane suggests both Cain, the brother of Abel, and the sugar cane harvested by the Caribbean slaves. Newland would thus seem to confront, head-on, the teaching of some white supremacist churches that the Mark of Cain, placed on him by God for the murder of his brother, was Black skin.

In Beverley’s dreams, she belongs to a family complicit in the slave trade. Despised by the Whites and hated by the Black field hands, they forge the chains and shackles and neck braces used on the slaves. These dreams make a bridge between the violence done to Black bodies in the slave era, and the violence – and acceptance of violence – that bubbles beneath the surface and occasionally erupts into the present day narrative. When Beverley records an episode of animal cruelty, Newland seems to dare us to be more shocked by that than what was done to human beings.

Newland's recurring image of a spider (including in one dream sequence probably best avoided by arachnophobes) evokes both the West African and Caribbean figure of Anansi – and the arachnoid mater (literarily ‘spider mother’) which, as Beverley’s journal entries tell us, is one of the three layers of meninges that protect brain and spinal chord and play a role in our perception of pain.

The question of whether the young man, now known as Wills, really is Beverley’s son Malakay is never fully answered. It is left to the reader to decide what the truth is, and whether it matters.

The Gospel According to Cane takes a simple narrative of maternal loss and psychological trauma, and gives it a far wider depth and resonance. Reading this, one cannot forget, either that countless babies were stolen from enslaved mothers, or that the damage done by the slave era still echo down through the generations today.

A Note on the Cover: The edition I read was the 2013 UK paperback, and the cover bothered me a lot, to the point where I have used what seemed to me the far more fitting American paperback at the head of this review. From the opening pages, it is clear that the narrator is a light-skinned Black woman of Caribbean heritage. And yet the woman on the UK cover seems to me to be generically Caucasian. Is this my distorted perception, or is it the publishing house ‘whitewashing’ the cover to make it more appealing to White readers -   Something I would have hoped would not happen to an established Black author like Courttia Newland?

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Long Song by Andrea Levy, Unless by Carol Shields

Avoid if you dislike: disjointed narratives, stories of lost children, spiders

Perfect Accompaniment: Curry Goat

Genre: Literary Fiction

Available from Amazon

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