A Cupboard Full of Coats by Yvvette Edwards

Literary fiction that manages to be utterly compelling, thought provoking, intense and revelatory. Set in 1970’s East London. It was long listed for the Booker Prize in 2011 and nominated for The Hurston-Wright Legacy Award in 2013.

I read A Cupboard Full of Coats during October with Didi’s Read Soul Lit ReadAlong group on Goodreads.

A Visitation

Booker longlisted Black british literary fictionIt is 14 years since Jinx’s mother died and the knock on her door by a friend of her mother’s she hasn’t seen since then, initiates this weekend like no other, which will bring back all the emotion, rage, resentment, passion and sorrow that has been pushed down so deep for years.

It is an intense and provocative beginning that reveals just enough to pique interest and make the reader begin to ask questions, that we hope the story will reveal. Who was responsible for what happened back then and what part did each of them play?

When Lemon arrives at her door, his first words are “he’s out”.

There were changes around his face; the crow’s feet at the corner of his eyes were wider fanned, the bags beneath them full and heavy, and his old skin bore new lines. His eyes were red-rimmed, the whites yellowed, the expression intense as he looked at me, already asking questions, talking of things that should be whispered even when alone, and it was me that looked away, looked down, wondering if my own eyes were as eloquent as his, afraid that they might be speaking volumes, scared of the things they might have already said.

Jinx’s five year old son Ben arrives for the weekend, a shared custody arrangement; it goes badly, she is reactive, he is upset.

Effect of Unconscious Trauma

There is a sense of suppressed trauma that impacts her ability to mother. The son tries to reach out to her and is unable to connect. Her perceptions and behaviour are inexplicable. When she views her son interacting with Lemon, she can’t grasp the ease they demonstrate.

I was in shock. I had never heard my son like this before. I had simply thought he was a morose child, because morose was how he always was with me. I had never seen this side of him, this laughing chattiness, the non-stop outpouring of everything going on in his life, the pleasure he took from his accomplishments, such as they were. And I felt hurt. Really hurt. Wounded to the core just listening to how natural and happy he could be with a virtual stranger, when I had been trying for nearly five years to have a relationship with him and had come up against brick after brick after brick.

Throughout the course of the weekend, we learn about the lives of Jinx and her mother, widowed at a young age having married a much older man.

The one thing my mother always said about Mr Jackson was that he was a decent man, that he took proper care of things, including this mortgage-free house that he left to her, which she then left to me when I was sixteen and she was dead. Decent enough to ask no more of her than that she occupy it and dedicate her life to raising me, forsaking all other men till I had grown up. ‘Grown up’ she interpreted to mean when I was sixteen. It was ironic that I actually had grown up then. Sixteen and overnight my childhood was over.

Will We Ever Understand Domestic Violence?

rain weather London Black British literary fiction

Photo by Sourav Mishra on Pexels.com

We learn about the beginning of her mum’s relationship with Berris. Of his moving in and taking over, Jinx’s growing resentment and jealousy. His volatile nature and her mother’s acceptance of it, of those coats he gives her as apologies.

There are many different kinds of rain, and England is famous for all of them. There are showers that start with a light drizzle, then build up to a steady pour. Then there’s rain that begins drip, drip, gets heavy, then stops then starts and stops and starts again. Then there’s sudden rain that falls quickly when it’s sunny, like its only ambition is to make a rainbow and once it’s done that, it stops. If I had to describe Berris as rain, he was none of those, and the words ‘You won’t even know he’s here’ turned out to be the understatement of the year.

Friendship

A Cupboard Full of Coats Yvvette Edwards

Photo by Mary Taylor on Pexels.com

When the narrative moves back to her sixteenth year, Jinx is her final year at school, sitting O levels. We meet her best friend Sam and observe that she too is going through a transition, two girls that used to do everything together, begin to diverge.

Their relationship begins to change when after a few days of absence the teacher no longer calls Sam’s name in roll call.

It’s like the beginning of the application of a moral code, something stronger than friendship, when womanhood approaches and white lies creep in between friends, as they navigate the shifting status on that precipice between girl and woman, when boys and men begin to enter their lives.

Narrative Structure

The narrative is structured in alternate chapters of the past and the present, so as the weekend progresses, with Lemon’s visit, there is a gradual thawing out and opening up, on both their parts, as Jinx listens and begins to open up, remembering, recalling, each filling in the gaps of the other’s perception of what happened around the time of her mother’s death.

The past concentrates on those month’s leading up to her mother’s death, building suspense as the story closes in on that final day, that until now, no one really had the complete picture of what occurred.

Reading it, we ask ourselves, can healing take place over a weekend? What will Lemon’s visit reveal? What is Jinx hiding?

A Cupboard Full of Coats explores relationships, jealousy, independence, co-dependence and the transitions that happen as a girl becomes a woman, a mother a lover and the vulnerability of women.

The atmosphere she creates, the intensity, the adept characterisation, the confessions and revelations make for a compelling read. Though I read it over a week when I was busy, each time I picked it up, it gripped me and I highlighted thought provoking passages all the way through. The conversation the group had about the book was dynamic, there was a lot of outrage expressed against the characters, the live discussion was a rewarding way to end the book.

Highly Recommended. I’ll definitely be reading her next novel and hope to see more from this talented British author.

Yvvette Edwards, Author

Black British literary fictionYvvette Edwards is a British East Londoner of Montserratian origin and author of two novels, A Cupboard Full of Coats and The Mother.  Her short stories have been published in anthologies including New Daughters of Africa, and broadcast on radio.

Her work has been nominated for a number of literary awards including the Booker Prize. She is particularly interested in writing that challenges the single narrative, giving voice to characters who are absent or under-represented in contemporary fiction.

She was a judge for the inaugural Jhalak Prize for Writers of Colour and the George Floyd Short Story Competition. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

Further Information

OneWorld Publications: Yvvette Edwards discusses A Cupboard Full of Coats

The Independent: A Matter of Black and White

Troubling Love by Elena Ferrante

translated by Ann Goldstein.

Elena Ferrante’s debut novel was first published in Italy in 1991, translated into English in 2016. It became a literary sensation and earned its author the Elsa Morante prize, one of Italy’s most prestigious awards for literature.

A Drowning at Sea

Naples Italy Elena Ferrante Troubling Love

Photo by Bekir Du00f6nmez on Pexels.com

Troubling.

A daughter Delia is concerned after a telephone call from her mother. Following her subsequent disappearance and death, she returns to her mother’s empty apartment, trying to retrace her steps to understand what had been going on in her life that lead to her abrupt departure. Her frustration with her mother is apparent from the first page.

Her sociability irritated me: she went shopping and got to know shopkeepers with whom in ten years I had exchanged no more than a word or two; she took walks through the city with casual acquaintances; she became a friend of my friends, and told them stories of her life, the same ones over and over. I, with her, could only be self-contained and insincere.

Strange things happen, some of which a neighbour helps explain, a woman who opens her door ajar at the slightest noise, thus aware of her mother’s visitors. Yet Delia doesn’t act rationally herself, she’s not the most reliable narrator and there is a sense of confusion and danger as we follow her reckless pursuit of clues across town and memories of the past emerge.

The Abusive, Possessive Artist

Troubling Love Elena Ferrante WIT Month Father Artist

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

Nearly every past relationship recounted is troubled, she and her sisters lived in fear of their father all their childhood, often watching him beat their mother in fits of irrational jealousy, blaming her should any man glance her way, yet he’d spent his days painting images of her naked body on canvas, selling them to anyone who’d pay.

During adolescence I saw those figures of a woman leave the house in the hands of strangers who were not sparing in their crude comments. I didn’t understand and perhaps there was nothing to understand. How was it possible that my father could hand over, to vulgar men, bold and seductive versions of that body which if necessary he would defend with a murderous rage?

Amalia spent her marriage suppressing her natural gaiety and charm, her daughter learned of the danger, developing an instinct for it.

When we went to the movies without him, my mother didn’t respect any of the rules that he imposed: she looked around freely, she laughed as she wasn’t supposed to laugh, and chatted with people she didn’t know. So when my father was there I couldn’t follow the story of the film. I glanced around furtively in the darkness to exercise, in my turn, control over Amalia, to anticipate the discovery of her secrets, to keep him, too, from discovering her guilt.

Much of the novel is narrated through the gaze of others, adding to the awkward, vulnerable, exposed feeling of the women. It’s a narrative of deep unease, both in the present day and in its long reach back to the first encounter between the young Amalia and her future possessive husband.

A Free Spirit Escapes

Troubling Love Elena Ferrante WIT Month

Her mother couldn’t be contained, she was an enigma to Delia, raised in that fearsome household, exposed to it from a very young age, conditioned by it, fear and judgement had become a natural part of her psyche.

I realised I was summarising a woman without prudence and without the virtue of fear. I had memories of it. Even when my father raised his fists and struck her, to shape her like a stone or a log, she widened her eyes not in fear but in astonishment.

Her mother used to sew, her world was measurements and fittings and bodies. Garments play a part in the story, again, a mystery to Delia to unravel and try to understand, as if they too might be a clue to her disappearance.

For all the days of her life she had reduced the uneasiness of bodies to paper and fabric, and perhaps it had become a habit, and so, out of habit, she tacitly rethought what was out of proportion, giving it the proper measure.

As she follows random leads, trying to reconstruct her mother’s movements, she revisits scenes from childhood, drawing a picture of her mother, a vivacious woman full of life, spilling outside the restrained bindings of an oppressive marriage and tries to reconstruct the latter part of her life that she’d lived out separate from her family, though still perceived by her daughter and ex-husband as being in secret.

Maybe in the end all that mattered of these two days without respite was the transplanting of the story from one head to the other, like a healthy organ that my mother had given up to me out of affection.

I was reminded of the experience of reading The Days of Abandonment, there is an intensity to the narrative, its visceral descriptions, evoking reactions, everything feels up close and confronting, we are passengers in the seat of a mind slightly out of control, where new thoughts send the protagonist out in pursuit of the elusive and we must accompany her, reassured by moments of clarity and spun out by acts of recklessness.

Elena Ferrante The Lying Life of Adults WIT MonthThat’s Ferrante.

She has a new book due out in September The Lying Life of Adults said to have the same additive, page-turning qualities of her earlier novels.

Ferrante follows Giovanna’s life from age 12 to 16, charting her development from the sweet girl who adores her parents to a sulking, aggressive teenager who finds pleasure in self-abasement and making those around her uncomfortable. The premise is a fertile one for the author, an expert chronicler of adolescence and its many indignities, as well as its erratic, overwhelming passions.

Kathryn Bromwich The Guardian

Further Reading

My Review of other Elena Ferrante titles:

The Days of Abandonment

My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave & Those Who Stay, The Story of the Lost Child

Frantamuglia (non-fiction)

The Guardian: Review: The Lying Life of Adults – a rebel rich girl comes of age by Kathryn Bromwich – Italians who queued up into the night for the reclusive writer’s new tale of painful adolescence won’t be disappointed

Writers and Lovers by Lily King

A thirty year old woman named Casey rents a tiny room and is soon to be evicted, she’s under a mountain of student debt, prone to crying, having lost her mother quite suddenly, is estranged from her father who tried to turn her into a golf pro as a youngster, an activity she now refuses to have anything to do with.

Casey is a waitress in a restaurant, on her last warning, is using her one month of being eligible for health insurance to have as many tests as possible and is paranoid about a lump in her armpit. And undecided about the two men she is simultaneously dating, both writers.

There’s a sense of life passing her by as she receives wedding invitations from friends, who judge her for not being able to afford to be part of their occasion (friends who’ve given up any attempt at independence or flexing their creative muscle for the safety and security of a man).

She’s spent 6 years writing a novel and is now on the verge of her fragile world crumbling on top of her. It is almost with relief that she contemplates the potential life-threatening lump that might be her escape.

I really struggled to stay with this one and persevered because I’d seen a number of good reviews, so I kept hoping it would improve. And it does towards the end. Although it does feel a little like a fairy tale ending. I guess it just wasn’t where I wanted or needed to be at the time of reading. I’ve long wanted to read Lily King’s earlier book Euphoria, which is in part why I jumped at the chance to read this.

I did enjoy the anecdote about Edith Wharton, scolded by her mother as a child for wanting to be alone to make things up and forbidden to read novels until after marriage. When her mother died, she sent her husband to the funeral and stayed home to write. She was 45 years old and published her first novel the following year.

And some thought provoking words about writing and fear:

All problems with writing and performing come from fear. Fear of exposure, fear of weakness, fear of lack of talent, fear of looking like a fool for trying, for even thinking you could write in the first place. It’s all fear.

And this aspect, more of a universal theme here perhaps:

If we didn’t have fear, imagine the creativity in the world. Fear holds us back every step of the way.

And that ultimately is what the journey of the protagonist is about, living in fear and allowing it, nurturing it, holding fast onto it, until she can no more. As she lets go of it, her life begins to change, until she realises, she has nothing to fear.

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Jeanette Winterson

why-be-happyThis stylised memoir, set in the working-class north of England, is the book Jeanette Winterson wasn’t ready to write back in 1985 when at 25 years of age, she wrote the novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, a book that plunged the reader into her universe, one that provided the author the liberty of narrating freely, without the confines of the story having to have been exactly as she had lived it – it was fiction, an imagined story, and she named the main character Jeanette, a provocative gesture for sure.

It was indeed inspired by her own experience, as we discover when she braved it and published this memoir nearly 30 years later (her adopted mother no longer living or able to be disapproving of her work), providing for the title, a quote from the mother who had been unable to shape the little human she acquired into her version of a normal daughter.

In her memoir she allows the real life characters to reveal parts of themselves, in particular Jeanette and the woman who raised her, whom she refers to as Mrs Winterson (her adoptive mother), a telling detail in itself, that she reserves the title of mother for the woman who is a shadowy illusion for most of the narrative; not there, not looked for, a vague presence in her psyche that she continuously rejects the thought of, her biological mother. I did wonder whether this was a literary invention or whether she actually did refer to her adoptive mother as Mrs W. It makes quite a statement.

‘I do not know why she didn’t/couldn’t have children. I know that she adopted me because she wanted a friend (she had none), and because I was like a flare sent out into the world – a way of saying  that she was here – a kind of X marks the spot.

She hated being a nobody, and like all children, adopted or not, I have had to live out some of her unlived life. We do that for our parents – we don’t really have any choice.’

Despite what was likely to have been a desperate desire for a child, Mrs W. dolled out punishments and criticisms more than any form of affection or love for her chosen child. When her mother was angry with her, Mrs W. often repeated one of her preferred biblical phrases “The Devil lead us to the wrong crib”. The Church was like family (though unsuccessful in helping them make friends) and the Bible one of only five books in the house, the one referred to most often. The most regular punishment however, was to lock her in the coal-scuttle or out on the door stoop – for the whole night.

‘Dad’s on the night shift, so she can go to bed, but she won’t sleep. She’ll read the Bible all night, and when Dad comes home, he’ll let me in, and he’ll say nothing, and she’ll say nothing, and we’ll act like it’s normal to leave your kid outside all night, and normal never to sleep with your husband. And normal to have two sets of false teeth, and a revolver in the duster drawer…’

It is a collection of anecdotes, written in a way to make the reader present, it’s not like reading an account of the past, it’s reliving days in the life of this fierce little battler, a girl who had a zest for life, who used her locked up time to invent imaginary characters, who made up stories, who forged her own personality through, who would not be tamed, who left home while still at school, taught herself to drive, lived in a car for a while and remarkably pushed herself forward as one of the ‘experimental’ working-class contenders for a place at Oxford University and succeeded.

Jeanette Winterson Photo by Sanhita SinhaRoy

Jeanette Winterson, Photo by Sanhita SinhaRoy

Jeanette Winterson writes her own story, forged over a past she didn’t know, that she tried to convince herself wasn’t important until driven almost mad and finally would follow through to unravel the missing link.

Her experience with Mrs Winterson is told with as much compassion as is possible, the facts related in a way that leaves the reader to judge and most will wonder why Mrs Winterson desired a child or was deemed fit to be given one at all.

It is an extraordinary account of childhood and growing up, of what home is, of how we perceive and learn love, of adoption, of how those formative years contribute into making us what we will become and that mysterious ‘other life’ that might have been, when you’ve been switched to alternative parentage post birth.

I never wanted to find my birth parents – if one set of parents felt like a misfortune, two sets would be self-destructive. I had no understanding of family life. I had no idea that you could like your parents, or that they could love you enough to be yourself.
I was a loner. I was self-invented. I didn’t believe in biology or biography. I believed in myself. Parents? What for? Except to hurt you.

It is also a tribute to literature and to the power of stories to influence lives, whether they are an escape for those who need refuge and to understand the world around them, or whether they are the occupation of the oppressed, a creative outlet for someone with nothing but their imagination to keep them entertained while enduring their struggle.

Click Here to Buy a Copy of Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal?

How To Be Brave by Louise Beech #Type1

how-to-be-braveHow to Be Brave isn’t just a book you read, it’s a story that you feel like you are living while reading, right down to sharing the symptoms and emotions of some of its characters. I didn’t just read this book, I experienced it, developed symptoms and was grateful for medicine and the time to rest and recuperate from it. But fear not, it’s totally worth the ride.

Natalie is the mother of 9-year-old Rose, whose father Jake is on a tour of duty in Afghanistan when Rose has a crisis which we learn is caused by a diagnosis of Type 1 diabetes. While they are in hospital both mother and daughter are visited and spoken to by a man who reassures them and whose voice leads them soon after to the discovery of dusty diary in a long abandoned box belonging to Natalie’s grandfather Colin.

As the two struggle to adapt to their new life routines that diabetes has forced upon them, they begin to share the story they have uncovered, of the destruction of the ship Colin had been working on and his long survival at sea before rescue.

The narrative of mother-daughter daily life and the passing of days at sea by Colin are interwoven so closely that we live the two simultaneously, there is a strong connectivity between what passes through the mind of young Rose and that of her great-grandfather.

They develop a routine that each time they must do the finger prick test and the insulin injection, they will narrate a portion of Rose’s great grandfather’s story; they don’t read from the diary however, rather, they take what they know and imagine the days, entering the minds and bodies of the men who shared the enormous challenge of trying to survive in a lifeboat floating with the currents at sea, and keeping their spirits up.

We meet Ken and Fowler and Scown and others and Scarface, the menacing shark that never gives up its pursuit, whose instinct is sharp and head-butting intentions lethal.

how-to-be-brave2Louise Beech has created a page-turning, moving story that on Day 2 of reading, which was also Day 2 post-op for my daughter who also has Type 1 diabetes (diagnosed at 9 year-old), but who is recovering currently from spinal surgery to correct a scoliosis related curvature, I began to develop symptoms of headache, dehydration and my body ached all over. I wasn’t sure if it was sympathetic pain for my daughter or for Colin, I couldn’t read, just as Colin and the men couldn’t always find the energy to keep a lookout and gave into sleep, and so did I, after a quick trip to the pharmacy for medicine and water, so dehydrated! Miraculously, the next day I was completely fine.

In between the created narrative which mother and daughter eventually share, coinciding with Rose taking more responsibility for doing her tests, preparing her insulin and even doing her own injections, they also open the diary randomly, using it as a kind of oracle and as one would expect, discovering just the reflection they needed to hear at that moment, as they travel their own journey.

Just as I do now with this book, while I live one day at a time with my daughter’s pain, and today as the morphine is removed and she has taken the paracetamol and all the medicine she is allowed, and the pain is still there and there is nothing more to give but a mother’s love, yes, I too open the book for reassurance and get this:

No one spoke. Even the sea seemed to listen, calm for a moment, its many colours merging into sparkling gold. Colin cut off thoughts beyond two days ahead. He was unable to imagine his hunger on so small an amount of food and so little water. Looking around at the craggy faces of his mates, he could see in their eyes the same fear. But it had to be. Much as the craving was there,they couldn’t eat more heartily for fear of how long rescue might be in coming.

Louise’s book has been my little escape these past four days, and these notes more like a journal than a review. I had intended to take a literary ocean escape with me during this time and meant to begin with Sheila Hurst’s Ocean Echoes which I will begin today, as she shares a similar love of the sea and ocean to me and likes the same kind of nature writing, however Louise’s book reached out to me and I decided to begin there, not realising how much of it takes place at sea. I couldn’t help noticing the synchronicity of this giant picture of a roiling sea, tossing a ship in its swell, right opposite us, the first thing I see every time I leave the room:

at-sea

When Rose suggests she is ready to take more responsibility for her diabetes preparation and injections, her mother is initially reluctant, seeing her still as small child, wanting to avoid her immersion into the serious world of managing the medical challenge. In the same way she resists Rose’s desire to take up some of the storytelling, until Rose shares the words she’d whispered into Colin’s ear, during her night-time dream:

Rose patted my head, gentler now.
‘I said, If you don’t live, I’ll disappear Grandad. Can I call you Grandad? You’re really my Great Grandad, but I like Grandad better. If you don’t live Grandad, I won’t be able to come back and stroke your hair. I’ll just dissolve like a salty ghost. So then I got a bit of the canvas logbook and drew us all in there; you and me and Dad. I wrote above it that I was learning how to be brave, and he was making it a lot easier.

I loved everything about this book, brilliantly conceived and written, I would almost say channelled, as we are totally cast into Colin’s experience and made to feel it, and that doesn’t come from mere words scratched on a page. And I loved how mother and daughter become twin storytellers of the story, using their imagination, feeding into and drawing from their night dreams and day dreams and the bittersweet ending. Oh the magic of fiction and of life.

Highly Recommended.

Click Here To Buy A Copy of How To Be Brave

More Louise Beech I’ve Reviewed:

The Mountain in My Shoe

Maria in the Moon