TagBlack Britain Writing Back

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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