Thursday 30 July 2020

Rainbow Milk by Paul Mendez

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought Of It:

Paul Mendez’s powerful debut Rainbow Milk is fiction, but it draws closely on Mendez’s own life. Indeed, the book began as a life writing exercise before he was persuaded to turn it into fiction.

Jesse has been brought up by his black mother and white stepfather in a strict Jehovah’s Witness community in Swan Village in the West Midlands. Outwardly, he is the perfect Brother, “the darling boy of the congregation, baptised, about to become a ministerial servant, halfway to elderdom, at nineteen.” Inwardly, he is struggling with his sexuality and with his mother’s emotional rejection.

When he is abruptly dis-fellowshipped and consequently ostracised by his family and the Witness community, Jesse escapes to London to lose himself in a mixture of drugs, sex work and the occasional bout of waitering.

Most of Jesse’s clients use him or abuse him, and immediately forget him, but others, like Derrick “rescued him by giving him the space to feel like a normal human being.” And then there is Owen, his newly-divorced gay flatmate, with whom he shares what could have been a bleak and lonely Christmas Day.

The novel is rich in musical references. Many of the scene are scored with music from Joy Division, Mary J Blige, Massive Attack, Public Image Limited...

“He closed his eyes and allowed the music to print images on the back of his eyelids. Derelict foundries; shopping trolleys in the algae covered canals, the gas tank; the disused railways lines choked with stinging nettles, a dustbin for screwed-up, spunked-in porn...”

Mendez’s descriptions of sex work can be brutal and shocking. But he is equally good at conveying moments of profound tenderness. He is adept too at conveying the intensity of a crowded restaurant service – the demands of the customers, the petty jealousies of the staff, the things that go wrong and the fleeting connections.

Rainbow Milk opens, though, with a young West Indian couple arriving in England’s industrial Black Country in the 1950s. It shows the poverty and prejudice they faces, but also the tenderness of a father to his young children and his tentative but growing relationship with his white neighbour. For most of the book, this section appears to stand alone, before it’s woven back into Jesse’s story towards the end.

Until recently, the lives of Black gay men have often been all-but invisible With films like Moonlight, television programmes like I May Destroy You and books like Dean Atta's The Black Flamingo, that is starting to change. Rainbow Milk is a deeply moving addition. It's the story of an exceptional journey – out of one world and into another, and from rejection and intolerance to acceptance and love. Parts of it are hard to read but it is ultimately brimming of hope and vibrant with life.

Shortlisted for the Jhalak Prize 2021

Listen to Paul Mendez talking to Okechukwe Nzelu, author of The Private Joys of Nnenna Maloney, on the Cabin Fever podcast, as they discuss writing, their different backgrounds and their experiences as Black gay men in Britain.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Jonny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead

Avoid If You Dislike: Graphic depictions of sexual activity.

Perfect Accompaniment: ‘Disorder’ by Joy Division

Genre: Contemporary, LGBTQIA+

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Thursday 23 July 2020

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize winning The Underground Railroad is a powerful and intentionally disturbing novel about slave-era America.

His main character, Cora, was born onto the Randall slave plantation in Georgia, the daughter of Mabel – the only slave ever to have runaway from Randall and evade recapture. Left to fend for herself when she was only nine years old, she has developed a toughness unusual even among slave women.

Whitehead does not shirk from showing the sickening violence and cruelty of life on the plantation, and the way it strips its victims of their humanity and reduces everything to the necessity of survival.

“There was an order of misery, misery tucked inside miseries, and you were meant to keep track.”

And yet the first time fellow slave, Caesar, asks Cora to escape with him, she says no. It is only after she is savagely beaten for her impulsive defence of a child that she allows him to persuade her to ride the Underground Railroad with him.

I don’t always read the blurbs of books before I dive in, so I was unprepared for the touch of surrealism when Whitehead flips the metaphor of the Underground Railroad and gives us a literal railroad running underground from State to State. As their first station agent tells them:

“If you want to see what this nation is all about, I always say, you have to ride the rails. Look outside as you speed through and you’ll find the true face of America.”

And so Whitehead takes Cora, and the reader, on a journey from state to state that reveals the diverse and ugly conditions of different pre-Civil War States.

From the Georgia plantation we are taken to South Carolina, where an apparently benevolent system hides living museum exhibits (something that also characterised the Britain’s Great Exhibition in 1851) and compulsory sterilisation. Across the border in North Carolina, they have ‘solved’ the negro problem by abolishing negroes – for a Black person merely to be found in the state is a capital crime, their bodies strung up as a gruesome warning along the ‘Freedom Trail’. Then there is Tennessee, blighted by poverty, draught, brushfires and sickness. And lastly, Indiana, no longer a slave state, where for a time a mixture of free Blacks and runaways try and establish a model community alongside the farms of the White settlers.

The slave catcher, Ridgeway, sums up the sense of entitlement and manifest destiny embedded in the American Dream. “If n***s were meant to have their freedom, they wouldn’t be in chains. If the red man was supposed to keep hold of his land, it’d still be his. If the white man wasn’t destined to taken this new world, he wouldn’t own in now.”

If the literal Underground Railway is a fiction, the conditions Whitehead describes in the different States are not. His depiction of each of Cora’s destinations is firmly rooted in fact. He has no need to embroider – the truth is horrific enough. It is the long history of glossing over those facts, on both side of the Atlantic, that has been and continues to be so damaging.

“The newspapers like to impress the fantasy of the happy plantation and the contented slave who sang and danced and loved Massa. Folks enjoyed that sort of thing and it was politically useful.”

An important and necessary book that helps to rebalance the scales against lies and fictions still too often being found politically-useful.

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize 2017 and longlisted for the Man Booker Prize

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Remembered by Yvonne Battle-Felton, The Long Song by Andrea Levy

Avoid If You Dislike: Confronting the realities of slave-era America

Perfect Accompaniment: An apple, and pumpernickel bread

Genre: Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction

Buy This Book Here

Thursday 16 July 2020

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought Of It:

No sooner was The Vanishing Half published in the UK, barely a few weeks ago, than my timeline began to fill up with people saying how extraordinary it was. And my goodness, it doesn’t disappoint! From the minute that Desiree Vignes strides onto the page, battered suitcase in one hand, her daughter in the other, the characters fizzle and sizzle and the story zips along.

That opening scene takes place a few days after the assassination of Martin Luther King, in a town in Louisiana, too tiny to appear on any maps, called Mallard. Mallard was founded by the freed son of a slave owner. “A town for men like him, who would never be accepted as white but refused to be treated like Negroes ... He imagined his children’s children’s children, lighter still, like a cup of coffee steadily diluted with cream ... Each generation lighter than before.”

And therein lies bore the core dream of Mallard and the core theme of the novel – the insidious nature of colorism.

Desiree is one of two twin girls who, years ago, ran away from Mallard to make a life for themselves far away. But while Desiree defied Mallard to marry a dark skinned Black man and have a child “blue black, like she flown direct from Africa”, her twin, Stella, has achieved the seeming impossible, ‘passed over’ as white and vanished.

Yet both twins have reason to know how impossible the Mallard dream is. As children, they witnessed their light-skinned father lynched by a mob of white men, for no other reason, it seemed, than to remind Mallard they could never by white.

“White folk kill you if you want too much, kill you if you want too little ... You gotta follow they rules but they change them when they feel. Devilish, you ask me.”

The novel tracks the stories of Desiree and Stella and their two daughters, Jude and Kennedy. Stella’s life may exemplify how being white has nothing to do with biology and everything to do with what is in the eye of the beholder. But it also shows how, in different ways, colorism internalises racism – turning Stella against her colored neighbours when she fears they might expose her, or teaching Jude see her own dark skin as “a fly in the milk, contaminating everything.”
The novel also introduces a trans character – Jude’s boyfriend Reese, completely and tenderly accepted for who he is, by Jude and by the narrator, even while he himself is still struggling with his identity.

An exquisite tour de force of a novel, peopled with flawed and unforgettable characters. and brimming with warmth and compassion.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Girl Woman Other by Bernardine Evaristo, When We Speak of Nothing by Olumide Popoola, Remembered by Yvonne Battle-Felton, A Tall History of Sugar by Curdella Forbes, The Mother by Yvvette Edwards

Avoid If You Dislike: Being reminded that both race and gender are constructs.

Perfect Accompaniment: Cornbread and milk

Genre: Literary Fiction

Buy This Book Here:

Thursday 9 July 2020

That Reminds Me by Derek Owusu

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

Those who annually drag out the tired old cliché that “the English novel is dead” should perhaps lift up their eyes: they would find so much exciting experimentation beyond familiar horizons. Just this year, for instance, I have read three very different novels which play with the boundaries between poetry. The first two were Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl Woman Other, the second Dean Atta’s The Black Flamingo and the third is Derek Owusu’s That Reminds Me, winner of the 2020 Desmond Elliot Prize.

That Reminds Me
is the story of K, London born child of Ghanaian parents. His life is recounted in a series of vignettes, most less than a page in length: moments captured in prose so tight it verges on poetry. It begins with K being fostered out to a white family who live in the countryside – an experience that mixes love with harsh discipline. Then, after a return to the family home, with an often-absent father and a mother who gets up a dawn to clean the local school, a baby brother is born. K has an ambivalent relationship with the church that is so important in his mother’s life. And both brothers experience, in different ways, the pressures of growing up poor and black in London.

The book is divided into five sections, each opening with a drawing of a tiny spider and an invocation to Anansi – trickster, story teller and spider god – and each dealing with a different period of K’s life. We see, almost frame by frame, how the world chips away at K’s sense of self. One of the books most shocking moments comes when K removes jacket to wash away a tiny stain on the front of his shirt, to reveal a sleeve soaked in blood from acts of self harm.

The novel is scattered with small details of the Ghanaian culture of K’s family. Chasing up some of the references (like the Nyame Mwu na Mawu symbol worn by mourners at a funeral – meaning “God never dies, therefore I cannot die”) is worth it to enrich understanding.

With writing so spare, a whole history can be tied up in a single sentence whose meaning is left to be unpacked - such as when he writes “My dark skin saved my father from social services but no one saved me.” At times that meaning can be elusive, but the text bears patient rereading.

That Reminds Me is the first novel published by Stormzy’s imprint, Merky Books. It’s a bold, adventurous start that promises great riches to come.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: My Name is Why by Lemn Sissay; This Brutal House by Niven Govinden; In Our Mad and Dangerous City by Guy Gunaratne

Avoid If You Dislike: fragmented narratives

Perfect Accompaniment: Ghanaian pepper soup

Genre: Literary Fiction

Buy This Book Here

Thursday 2 July 2020

The Private Joys of Nnenna Maloney by Okechukwu Nzelu

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

Nnenna is the only child of single mother and Cambridge Classics graduate Joanie and a Nigerian father she has never met. She and her mother are close, but Nnenna has never been able to get her mother to talk about her father. So when she begins to explore her Igbo heritage, she does so in secrecy.

The book captures the intensity of the relationship between a single mother and her only daughter, and the peculiar pain (for both of them) of the daughter’s first adolescent rebellion. It examines what it means to grow up without knowing about a significant part of your heritage, and how a white parent, however well-intentioned, can be blind to the impact that has on their child.

The story is peppered with examples of the sort of everyday sexism and racism women of colour face every day. (“I’m not normally attracted to girls like you but...”) You can see how these begin to chip away at Nnenna’s sense of self, as she imagines the conversations her teachers might be having about her behind her back.

This book was not quite what I was expecting when I first opened it, and as when you step onto something that is moving in a way you don’t expect, it can take a little while to get used to the direction of travel. The tone early on reminded me of books like Frederic Raphael’s Glittering Prizes, which looked at the lives of Cambridge graduates in the 1950s to 70s. And though Nnenna is central to the story, the narrative is divided between her, her parents and their group of Cambridge friends in the 1990s, and in the present day, her mother, one of those friends (a gay West Indian man) and a couple of Nnenna’s friends. Through those additional characters, the book also explores generational, class and cultural attitudes to gay men, and shines a light on exploitation within the gay community too.

There is an interesting comparison to be made between this and Olumide Popoola’s When We Speak of Nothing, which shares some of the same themes. Nnenna’s world, among largely well-off pupils at a high-achieving school in Manchester, is a long way from Abu and Karl’s London comprehensive. But teenage dilemmas remain much the same, regardless of background.

A witty, troubling tale of coming of age as a mixed-race child of a single, white mother.

The Private Joys of Nnenna Maloney was shortlisted for the 2020 Desmond Elliott Prize.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Olumide Popoola’s When We Speak of Nothing

Avoid If You Dislike: Narratives shared among a large number of characters

Perfect Accompaniment: Groundrice and fried plantain

Genre: Contemporary, Coming of Age, LGBTQ

Buy This Book Here