The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins

One Interview Leads to Another Book

The Confession of Frannie Langton Black Slave Scientific RacismAlthough 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.

Book Review

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.”

gothic fiction Costa Book Awards winnerThe 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.

Further Reading

Sara Collins on the True Crime inspiration & research behind her novel

NPR Review: ‘Frannie Langton’ Takes Power Over Her Own Story by Annalisa Quinn

NPR Interview: A Different Kind Of Story About Slavery In ‘The Confessions Of Frannie Langton’

My Review: This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga

Upcoming Online Event at London Review Bookshop: Recollections of My Non-Existence: Rebecca Solnit & Mary Beard

This Mortal Boy by Fiona Kidman

This Mortal Boy is a fictionalised account of a true crime story. A sensitively written account of the life of Albert Black a young man from Belfast, Northern Ireland who arrived in NZ in the 1950’s on a £10 one-way ticket, guaranteed work for 2 years, who never quite fit in and discovered it was a whole lot more expensive to return, if you decided you didn’t want to stay.

His father hadn’t been conscripted but had gone to war anyway, leaving his wife and young son Albert, who survived the Blitz together, an experience that drew mother and son closer than ever. He never attained the same closeness to his father, who returned a different man.

Remembering how it was, the explosions and the fire raids, the people dying or already dead all about their street, the way she had put Albert on a shelf in a closet and held the door shut against him, leaning her body in with all her might, hoping not to be thrown off her feet when the next blast came. He was barely six at the time, still small enough to put in a cupboard and keep him safe.

Belfast had its own problems and New Zealand seemed like an experience that might be good for him, so his parents bought him a ticket and Albert set off dreaming of getting rich and building a fine house for his family.

Some days she looks at her husband and think it is his fault. Then she thinks it is hers for over-loving him, for not wanting to let him go, and her husband seeing that, and thinking he needed the chance to to grow up, to go to a land of opportunity.

Initially he worked in Wellington where he stuck with his new friend Peter, a young man from Liverpool who he met on the boat, they move in as private boarders with a young widow and her children, but the letters from home give Albert  itchy feet; he takes the train to Auckland in search of better paid work to save for his passage home.

He is a gentle, kind lad, one his landlady trusted immediately to take care of her boarding house while she tended to a sick friend. A little lonely he began to frequent a local cafe where he came across a violent young man, who would cause a significant change in his life’s trajectory.

The volatile man called himself Johnny McBride after a character in a Mickey Spillane novel, he was quick to settle any dispute with his fists and feet. Against his better judgement, Albert allowed him to stay a few nights, he overstayed his welcome, their relationship turned sour, ultimately violent, resulting in a death. Albert Black was accused of murder and forced to face a judge and jury unlikely to consider the mitigating circumstances that might have reduced his crime to manslaughter.

Originally meaning ‘fake, false, inferior, worthless’, the term ‘bodgie’ was applied in the 1950s to a male youth distinguished by his conformity to certain fashions and behaviours. The ‘widgie’ was his female counterpart.

A change in government to a more right wing party and its disapproval of youth culture prompted the Mazengarb inquiry into ‘juvenile delinquency’ and the reintroduction of the previously outlawed death penalty. The government took a hard line on what they perceived as immoral youth and its representatives publicly expressed their prejudice against and contempt for outsiders, often blaming them for this wave of moral delinquency.

The offender is not one of ours. It is unfortunate that we got this undesirable from his homeland.

Delivered to every household it also blamed the perceived promiscuity of the nation’s youth on working mothers, the ready availability of contraceptives, and young women enticing men to have sex. Kidman, who was 15 years old at the time, remembers it arriving at her family home and it being quickly removed before it gave them ideas. It is said to have had no observable impact on young people’s behaviour, rather contributing to the sense of moral panic.*

The report, sent to every New Zealand home, blamed lack of parental supervision for juvenile delinquency and advocated a return to Christianity and traditional values. Excessive wages for teenagers, a decline in the quality of family life, the influence of films, comics and American literature all apparently contributed to the problem. The report provided a basis for new legislation that introduced stricter censorship and restrictions on contraceptive advice to young people.

Albert effectively becomes a scapegoat for a violent message they wished to deliver to wayward youth, and with the odds stacked against him, a terrible verdict is delivered.

…in the eyes of God as in those of conscience, what is a crime when individuals do it is no less an offence when society commits the deed. Victor Hugo

It’s a tragic story of a young man caught in a moment of history that came down hard on youth and migrants. His case was sensationalised by the media and there were a number of irregularities that are likely to have contributed to the verdict.

More than just a novel, Fiona Kidman has requested and hopes for a posthumous pardon for Albert Black, hoping for the sake of his family that he can be seen in a different way to how history has portrayed him. This work helps create more of a balanced view of the young man, his hopes, dreams and intentions in his short-lived life.

I began the story of Albert’s short life and death because it illustrated a theme that has run through my mind for a long time, a concern for young people who make one terrible mistake and have not only had their own lives changed forever, but that of theirs and their victim’s families, and of the wider society.

This Mortal Boy won the Ockham New Zealand Book Award for Fiction.

Further Reading

Article by Fiona Kidman, Irish Times – Chasing justice for a Belfast man hanged in New Zealand

* NZ History – Mazengarb report released, 20 September 1954

More reviews of Fiona Kidman novels, The Captive Wife, The Infinite Air, Songs From the Violet Cafe

Buy a Copy of This Mortal Boy via Book Depository

N.B. Thank to the publisher Gallic Books, Aardvark Bureau for an ARC (advance reader copy) of this book.