Reviewed by Tiffany M. Davis
A MOTHER'S GOSPEL
TAGS: Courttia Newland, Akashic Books, child abduction, Black British literature
Beverley Cottrell experienced one of the most harrowing horrors of motherhood: her son, Malakay, was abducted. To add insult to injury, Malakay was abducted while her husband left the boy in the car, unattended, while he ran to pick up food from a restaurant. Beverley's grief as her son was never found, plus the unspoken blame she attributed to her husband, left her marriage in tatters and her spirit broken. After her divorce, Beverley attempts to pick up the pieces in her life by teaching creative writing to a group of at-risk street children at a local community center. She began noticing a teenage boy who kept following her in the streets, even showing up at her home. When she finally confronted the boy, he told her something that rocked her to her core: he was her abducted son, returned to her.
Courttia Newland is one of the UK's most acclaimed authors, and The Gospel According to Cane --Newland's first published book in the United States--certainly packs a punch. It remains to be seen how it is received by American audiences, as British literature tends to be much denser than American literature and assumes a more cosmopolitan audience. Indeed, this reviewer had to really bear down and get back into the flow of the British style of writing. Newland's novel continues in that tradition, and is full of nuances and layers that may require more than one reading in order to wring every drop of flavor from its pages.
Newland is masterful at creating Beverley, a mother who has never put her child's disappearance behind her. Her attempts at mothering a group of street urchins through writing only fill the void within her to a certain extent. The son who may or may not be Malakay gives her a second chance at true motherhood, one that she grabs hold with both hands. Newland deftly navigates Beverley's attempts at no-questions-asked acceptance, care and feeding of Malakay, which puts her at odds not only with her elder sister Jackie, who distanced herself from Beverley after Malakay's disappearance, but with the young adults in her writing class. Most interesting are Beverley's relationship with Sam, one of her students--or rather, Sam's relationship with Beverley.; and Seth, her sometime lover who was the lead officer in Malakay's disappearance over eighteen years ago. Malakay's (re)appearance in Beverley's life creates a ripple effect that shatters the ties which Beverley once thought were unassailable (her sister Jackie, her best friend and next-door neighbor Ida) and severs those she thought were growing stronger (her writing class). It also brings into bear the modern phenomenon of the “cougar”, and how such a perception colors Beverley's intentions. The ending of the novel, while amorphous, leaves readers breathless for an answer to the question: is or is not Malakay her son?
Readers may be a bit confused at the references to sugar cane, which gives a clue to Beverley and Jackie's upbringing and casts a lasting shadow on Beverley's life. The flashbacks into Beverley's past also give a glimpse at how and why Malakay's reappearance gained importance beyond that of a mother reunited with her child. Still, the novel's underlying theme of resistance to change and the powerful bond of mother and child will resonate with readers. Both those unfamiliar with Newland's work and loyal fans will be pleased with The Gospel According to Cane.
Tiffany M. Davis is the Senior Editor of QBR: The Black Book Review. She has been published in anthologies and The Backlist newsletter, and has contributed her award-winning writing and editorial services to clients that include National Geographic, Sodexho, the American Society for Cell Biology, and Triple Crown Publications. A graduate of Georgetown University and a former chef trained at the Culinary Institute of America, she currently lives in Georgia.