The Gospel According to Cane is Courttia Newland’s seventh book, which Bernadine Evaristo describes as “a coming-of-middle-age novel, but one seasoned with style and sophistication.” The book’s main character is an Anglo- Barbadian woman who has lost everything, including her only son. Here are excerpts of Evaristo’s reflections.
Courttia Newland published his first novel in 1997, at the age of 23. His early fiction featured the kind of marginalised urban youngsters now fashionably ventriloquised in novels such as Pigeon English. But while his themes have long since expanded, he also remains true to his roots. His latest novel may have a middle-class, middle-aged African-Caribbean woman at its centre, but those same disaffected teenagers hover at its periphery.
Beverley Cottrell has spent 20 years grieving for her kidnapped baby son, Malakay. During this time she has lost everything – husband, job, house, happiness. One day she notices a sullen young man scrutinising her in Portobello market. After he follows her and talks his way into her small council flat saying he is her son, she comes to believe him, and allows him to move in. But he has no proof of his identity, and those closest to her warn her off, including the students from the after-school club where she volunteers. [. . .]
This is an epistolary novel presented as Beverley’s journal, in which she writes her “past, present, future,” and descriptions of pain from medical textbooks. We discover, through her dreams, that her Barbadian ancestors colluded in slavery by running a shop that sold shackles, whips and branding irons: so when she writes, “The word pain comes from the Latin poena, meaning penalty or fine,” we infer that the novel’s title refers not just to sugar cane, but to the biblical curse of Cain. These dreamscapes operate as a kind of parallel universe, taking us back to the oppressive atmosphere of 19th-century slavery, with its humiliations and brutality. Feelings of persecution are expressed in a nightmare where she is caught in a spider’s web: “Milk white, it hung between two stalks of cane, the biggest yet, solitary sentries as thick as branchless oaks. It stretched across the path in the centre of the crossroads.”
Malakay is a shadowy, malevolent presence, and the source of the novel’s thrillerish tension. Edgy and damaged, he says little and we don’t get to know him. Beverley is both drawn to and fears the young man she wants to believe is her child, but whose eyes seemed “flat, reptilian”. Her need to claim him is so great that she doesn’t at first do the obvious thing – demand a DNA test.
Newland writes Beverley with sensitivity and complexity. She, too, is damaged and confused enough to admit that her thoughts about Malakay are “based on hope rather than belief,” yet in the next breath to compare him to “his long-dead grandfather”. She lives in an area of west London where “it’s all gangs and postcodes”, but she comes from money and privilege: she can be snooty about her students and her stiff diction contrasts superbly with the slangy vernacular of the young people around her. Yet she’s at her most lively when she’s trying to instill in them, through creative writing classes, the sense of self-worth clearly lacking in her son. [. . .]
Courttia Newland (1973), a London-based writer of Jamaican and Barbadian heritage. His other works include The Scholar (his first novel), Society Within, Snakeskin, The Global Village, and A Book of Blues.