Thursday, 19 March 2020

Remembered by Yvonne Battle-Felton

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

“It’s 1910. It’s high time they stop killing our people. If we don’t stop them now, it won’t ever stop.”

It’s hard to read this sentence, at the end of the first chapter of Yvonne Battle-Felton’s Remembered, without feeling the exhaustion and disillusionment of a struggle that is more than century old and still far from over.

The germ of Battle-Felton’s story is a handful of cuttings taken from Philadelphia newspapers at the time of the 1910 general strike. They concern a young black worker, Edward Freeman, mortally injured and lying in hospital, who is suspected of deliberately driving one of the city’s trolley cars into a “No Coloreds Allowed” store front, thereby killing several bystanders.

From there the author imagines his grieving mother, Spring, sitting at his bedside. Outside, a crowd bays for his blood, but inside Spring is compelled to Edward the story of his birth and antecedents, so that her sister’s ghost, Tempe, can guide the boy ‘home’.

It begins with Ella, the twelve year old daughter of free Black family, who in 1843 is snatched from the streets of Philadelphia and taken to a slave plantation in Maryland. The owner, Walker, intends to use her as a broodmare, to break the curse that means that nothing has grown and nothing has been born on his land for over a decade. But the old slave woman, Mama Skins, has other ideas.

Remembered is a story of ghosts and superstitions. Of lives and friendships grubbed out of the small spaces left within the endless strictures of a slave’s life. Of struggles in which, at times, the liberation of death can be a small and bitter victory.

It is also a story that shows how, when mothers and children are treated at commodities to be bought and sold at will, the nature of motherhood – of who is a mother and how she must act in the best interest of her children – is distorted.

Like Frannie in Sara Collins’ The Confessions of Frannie Langton, Spring has a rebuke for those who “ask to see the scars [they] imagined ran up and down my back, to ask how the whip felt o my skin. They want to be close up to pain, until they are.” She knows only too well that if she really reveals how she feels, she becomes the angry Black woman who ought to be grateful to be alive. She knows that these stories need to be kept alive, but that people only want to hear them when they conform to their own prejudices.

An incredibly assured debut novel, peopled with voices that ring across the centuries. Longlisted for both the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction and the 2020 Jhalak Prize.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Beloved by Toni Morrison, The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins, A Tall History of Sugar by Curdella Forbes, Empire of the Wild by Cherie Dimaline

Avoid If You Dislike: Ghosts striding through the pages of a story

Perfect Accompaniment: A handful of blueberries.

Genre: Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction

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