One Interview Leads to Another Book
Although I was aware that this book won the popular Costa First Novel Book Award in 2019, I became intrigued to read it after listening to the author Sara Collins interview Tsitsi Dangaremba in the lead up to the Booker Prize announcement, attending an online event created by the independent London Review Bookshop.
She is an incredibly engaging and astute interviewer, which made me curious to check out her transition to novelist with her award winning debut.
Sara Collins was a practicing lawyer for 17 years (and a mother of five children) before doing her Master of Studies in Creative Writing at Cambridge University, where she was the recipient of the 2015 Michael Holroyd Prize for Creative Writing. She is a British author of Jamaican descent.
Frannie is a slave and biologically related to the Master Langton, one couldn’t say ‘daughter of’ because there is nothing in his actions or attitudes that bear any relation to her being in any way connected to him. He doesn’t deserve it.
He educates her so she can be his scribe for the book he is writing Crania, a racist text that is actually based on a real book written by an American craniologist who sought to prove that the races were separate species. He wanted to know what was under the skin of man, a man obsessed by his own race’s perceived superiority and willing to go to all lengths to prove it, driven by another in London, whom he sought to impress.
“Langton once told me that when the English soldiers rounded up the obeah men in Jamaica, after Tacky’s rebellion, they experimented on them. Tied them with shackles, prodded them with electric machines and magic lanterns, gave them all manner of jolts and shocks. It must have felt like thunder going through their bones, or pops of lightening cleaving their skulls. When they could no longer stand it, they were forced to admit that the white man’s magic was stronger.”
The first part of the book is set in Jamaica as Frannie narrates her story, although the opening pages are set in The Old Bailey courthouse, from where she sits accused of murder and in this short narrative, she addresses “you” the person she is telling this story, her lawyer.
We understand she remembers nothing of the events she is on trial for. So perhaps in telling her story, she might remember. And so we go back to learn what brought her to be in this position, back to the Jamaican plantation where she was born, the man who raised her, his wife who knew things but withheld them from her and would banish them both.
It’s a narrative where not quite all is revealed in each revelation, so there is throughout a sense of detail being withheld, which might help reader’s understand her motive or guess her guilt or innocence and so the author prevents this, by telling some but all of the detail, so that in reading we come up with more and more questions. Although this is designed to build mystery and wonder, it became a little annoying.
What is Gothic Fiction?
The author admits to being a fan of gothic fiction and perhaps The Confessions of Frannie Langton is an example of that, with its elements of fear, horror, death, gloom, as well as romantic elements. The romance element didn’t quite work for me, Frannie’s connection with another character felt more authentic, but certainly the rest of the elements were there and the blood-chilling facts that exist in history behind the story are gothic indeed.
She decided to write a Gothic novel because she wanted to explore the roots of scientific racism.
“I thought actually that Gothic was the perfect vehicle for that because it’s such a good form for bringing dark things to light. You know, what surprised me when I was writing and researching the novel is how much those great minds of the Enlightenment were actually obsessed with this idea of deciding whether or not black people were human. And I don’t think we tell the truth about that. I don’t think we’ve examined the truth hard enough about what those men were up to.” Sara Collins
It is the suggestion of the horror and the slow build up to it being revealed that delivers the distasteful aspect of the genre and in particular because these white men involved in such activities did actually exist.
Man is a horror.
It’s an extraordinary and commendable achievement, though I think I’ll be more careful before dipping my toe into this genre again.
NPR Review: ‘Frannie Langton’ Takes Power Over Her Own Story by Annalisa Quinn
My Review: This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga
Upcoming Online Event at London Review Bookshop: Recollections of My Non-Existence: Rebecca Solnit & Mary Beard