TagBlack Britain Writing Back

The Fat Lady Sings by Jacqueline Roy

This is another title from Bernardine Evaristo’s Black Britain: Writing Back series. Jacqueline Roy has written a number of children’s books. The Fat Lady Sings (published in 2000) was her first novel for adults – her second will be published later this month.

The Fat Lady Sings revolves around two Caribbean women living in a psychiatric ward in 1990s London. Gloria is in her fifties, a naturally exuberant presence: her mental health was assessed when her neighbours complained about her singing. It’s as though life has conspired to prevent Gloria from living it on her own terms. She has been ostracised by the family of her partner, Josie. When talking to police at the scene of the train crash that killed Josie, Gloria only felt able to describe herself as Josie’s friend. It’s a similar story on the ward: Gloria is told to keep her voice down, and the food is bland English fare.

Gloria has been in the unit for some months. Roy’s other protagonist is a new arrival: twentysomething Merle, who’s quiet and afraid of the voices in her head. Where Gloria’s narrative viewpoint is continuous, Merle’s is fragmented and subject to interruptions. But over the course of the novel, we see both women’s pasts, and they try to find a future for themselves.

The Fat Lady Sings is written in a way that brings the reader close to both its protagonists. We have to piece together their lives, just as they are doing. But there are moments of humour and light along the way – ultimately this is a tale of survival.

Published by Penguin.

Bernard and the Cloth Monkey by Judith Bryan

This novel (first published in 1998) is another reissue in the ‘Black Britain: Writing Back‘ series curated by Bernardine Evaristo and published by Penguin. It opens with sisters Anita and Beth as children, helping their mother to look after their dying father. It’s a stark beginning. 

Years later, Anita returns to the house in London. Her mother is on holiday, but Beth is still there, and now it’s the sisters’ chance to reconnect and sort through the past. There is a lot to work through: the shadow of Anita’s and Beth’s father in particular looms over the house. 

Judith Bryan creates a wonderful, shifting atmosphere throughout her novel. There’s tension and dread in seemingly ordinary domestic scenes. Then the writing may move into the safety/distancing of a fairytale register. There are also times when the tone becomes brighter, such as the rhythm of this passage celebrating a childhood friendship of Anita’s:

Two girls, one dark one darker, like twin shadows, each seeking shelter, ‘home’ is only one another, whispering secrets, telling tales. Don’t let go of her, she’ll never leave you, always ready to relieve you, stepping in when you can’t take it, when your back’s against the rails.

Then there are the scenes where Anita catches up with her ex-boyfriend, Steve. There’s a real sense of openness to these scenes, the possibilities of the city. Whether this can last for Anita is another question; it’s just one strand in this multi-faceted novel. 

The Dancing Face by Mike Phillips

Bernardine Evaristo has curated a series called ‘Black Britain: Writing Back‘ with her publisher Hamish Hamilton, which aims to highlight works by Black British writers that have become overlooked. The Dancing Face is one of the six fiction titles launching the series (with six non-fiction books to follow later this year). It’s a thriller originally published in 1997.

Gus Dixon is a Black British university lecturer, and a member of the Committee for Reparations to Africa. He’s disillusioned with the Committee’s lack of action, and sets in motion the theft of a Beninese mask from an exhibition, all for the attention it will bring to the cause. 

But Gus is soon out of his depth, and finds himself entangled with others who have different ideas about the mask. One of the key players is Dr Okigbo, a Nigerian chief in exile who bankrolled the robbery, and wants the mask for personal leverage. In an attempt to keep it safe, Gus sends the mask to his younger brother Danny, a student – which ends up putting Danny in danger. 

Phillips explores issues of identity, and what the mask means to different people. Gus has considered his relationship to an African identity, and reached a conclusion. Danny is still thinking these issues through, and may have ideas of his own. The novel’s African characters offer further perspectives. Alongside this, The Dancing Face is a cracking thriller, with twists that I didn’t see coming and some fine action sequences. I would recommend it warmly.

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