There’s certainly been a lot of book prize news recently, but The Green Carnation Prize which celebrates books by LGBT authors is an extremely special one! I was honoured to be a judge the last time it was awarded where we selected Marlon James’ epic “A Brief History of Seven Killings” among an extraordinarily good longlist.

The new longlist for books published in 2016 has just been announced and for me it hits the perfect balance between excellent books I’ve read, books I’ve been meaning to read and a couple surprises of books I know very little about. It’s wonderful to see Will Eaves’ incredibly distinctive memoir in fragments recognized alongside David France’s comprehensive and personal account of individuals involved in fighting the AIDS crisis. Kirsty Logan’s stories are so beautifully inventive as is Kei Miller’s richly immersive novel about a community in the outskirts of a Jamaican city. I’m especially pleased to see one of my favourite modern poets John McCullough on the list. And, even though I read Garth Greenwell’s book back in 2015, I still often think about this moving novel which gives such a radical new perspective on desire.

It’ll be exciting to follow the shortlist which will be announced on April 28th and the winner which will be announced on May 22nd. Click on the titles below to read my thoughts about some of the books I’ve already read and reviewed.
What books on the list are you most interested in reading?

London Lies Beneath by Stella Duffy
The Inevitable Gift Shop by Will Eaves
How to Survive a Plague by David France
What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell
A Portable Shelter by Kirsty Logan
Spacecraft by John McCullough
Augustown by Kei Miller
Where The Trees Were by Inga Simpson
Straight Jacket by Matthew Todd
Our Young Man by Edmund White

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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Reading and judging the many submissions for The Green Carnation Prize was one of the toughest things I’ve done this year, but it’s also been one of the most fulfilling. Championing new writing is important to me and I’m grateful for this platform that raises awareness of some of the best LGBT authors working today. Meeting with the judges was like participating in the most rigorous and enjoyable book club ever. We discussed the books from many angles. Since this is a prize open to books in every genre it felt particularly difficult to compare them against each other. Also, it sounds like a cliché, but the short list was particularly strong. When we went into our final meeting to select a winner I truly felt any of these six accomplished books could win.

This year there was an added challenge to the selection process. We began reading submission in July, but during the course of the judging process Marlon James’ “A Brief History of Seven Killings” won the Booker Prize – one of the most high profile book prizes in the UK. It’d be impossible to ignore the weight of this phenomenon where James’ long, complicated novel rose from relative obscurity to one of the most talked about books of the year. It also filled the shop front windows of many bookstores. Is it really right to award another book prize to a novel that’s become so high profile? Wouldn’t it be better to raise awareness for a foreign author like Erwin Mortier, an incredibly impressive debut author like Gavin McCrea, an established author that has stayed true to his subject matter like Patrick Gale or an accomplished literary trickster like Patricia Duncker (all of whom deserve to be more widely read)? But the prize isn’t about the author or the social landscape of publishing, it’s about the book.

“Sophie & The Sibyl” and “Mrs Engels” did stand out as particularly skilful accomplishments. Duncker’s novel is an engrossing tale told with humour, intelligence and pays tribute to one of the greatest writers in English literature. McCrea’s literary drag act of a book gives voice to a woman who was a footnote in the history books and creates a story which can be read in relation to many of the most pressing issues today – everything from the recent global recession to gay marriage.

But, when the judges sat down to talk long and hard over all the shortlist, the book that stood out as a shining masterpiece was “A Brief History of Seven Killings.” This is a challenging novel. No doubt. And I’m sure many people who bought a copy after it won the Booker didn’t finish reading it. I hope that with this award people decide to go back and read it again – if for no other reason than to enjoy two of the most original gay characters to appear in a novel for years.

Holding the crystal shard of a prize

Holding the crystal shard of a prize

Something many people probably haven’t considered about this novel is what a brave challenge it is to include such characters and explicit gay sex scenes. This novel centres around Bob Marley, one of the most celebrated figures in Jamaican history. While it goes past this extraordinary event surrounding the icon singer also considering many aspects of the drug trade, political & gang warfare and relations between the US & Jamaica, the fact it includes compelling openly gay characters will make it difficult for many people in Jamaica to accept. James has talked about this in a recent interview with Jeanette Winterson in the Guardian where he stated: “In this book, there’s a gay sex scene. And I thought the scene was important, because experiencing sex from a character was the only way he could accept any level of his queerness, which is why it is a blow-by-blow sex scene. The Jamaicans weren’t happy.”

Aside from any politics or book prizes, this novel is simply a stunning accomplishment that everyone should read.

Recently, I met with my fellow judges in Foyles’ beautiful flagship store in London where we had an in-depth discussion on the twelve books we’d chosen for the Green Carnation longlist. It was difficult to whittle this stack down to a shortlist because they are such a diverse and interesting group we all heartily recommend. But, after much debate, (helped along with some slices of cake) I’m proud to announce we’ve come up with a shortlist of six books!

Here we have a novel that reaches across time to shake hands with George Eliot, a fictional reimagining of the author's great-grandfather's exile, a personal & urgent non-fiction account of the drug war that's torn our society apart, a multi-voiced tale from Jamaica that includes complex & original gay characters, a lively & entertaining narrator who provides an essential counter-point to the birth of Marxism and a personal & poetic memoir about family.

Sophie & The Sibyl by Patricia Duncker (Bloomsbury)
A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale (Hodder Books)
Chasing the Scream by Johann Hari (Bloomsbury)
A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James (One World)
Mrs Engels by Gavin McCrea (Scribe)
Stammered Songbook by Erwin Mortier (Pushkin Press)

Click here to read more about the Green Carnation Prize’s history
Click here to find and purchase all the nominated books from Foyles

Have you read any of these books? What are you interested in reading from this list? Are there other books you’d have liked to see listed? Any thoughts on the list as a whole?

I would love to know your thoughts. It’s going to be a challenge choosing a winner from this fantastic group.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
3 CommentsPost a comment

For the past few months I’ve been reading at a greater pace than usual because I’m one of the judges for this year’s Green Carnation Prize. Last weekend the judges and I met to discuss the HUGE amount of submissions we’ve read, debate amongst each other and decide on a glorious long list of a dozen exciting books. There were a lot of great entries in the mix. Some choices were easy. Others required more discussion. But, I can honestly say that the books listed below are all excellent. They range from poetry to fiction to memoir to nonfiction. From the contemporary to the historical. From the fantastic to stark depictions of reality.

Being a judge on this prize has been a great challenge. I’ve enjoyed reading so many books and authors which I wouldn’t have found otherwise. We’re now in the process of rereading and then I’ll meet with my wonderful group of fellow judges again to decide our short list. In the mean time, have a look through this diverse list. Several books I’ve reviewed and you can read my thoughts about them by clicking on the titles below.

Click here to read more about the judges
Click here to read about the prize & buy the books on Foyles' site

Blood Relatives by Steven Alcock (4th Estate)
Deep Lane by Mark Doty (Jonathan Cape)
Sophie & The Sibyl by Patricia Duncker (Bloomsbury)
Artwash by Mel Evans (Pluto Books)
A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale (Hodder Books)
Chasing the Scream by Johann Hari (Bloomsbury)
A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James (One World)
The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan (Harvill Secker)
Mrs Engels by Gavin McCrea (Scribe)
Stammered Songbook by Erwin Mortier (Pushkin Press)
Don’t Let Him Know by Sandip Roy (Bloomsbury)
The Curator by Jacques Strauss (Jonathan Cape)

Have you read any of the books from this list? Are there any you are now interested in reading? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
2 CommentsPost a comment

Three things prompted this post. It’s Pride in London today; Yesterday, the US Supreme Court ruled gay marriage is now legal nationwide; And I was recently named as a judge for the 2015 Green Carnation Prize. It’s a pretty fabulous time for all things LGBT. So to celebrate I want to shout out about ten novels by LGBT authors and about LGBT issues which I think deserve to be read more widely. What's amazing about these books are the range of queer experiences they explore, often tapping into areas I've never seen represented before. I should add that some of these are better known in the US. I wrote this post thinking about a UK audience.
Have you read any of these?
Do you have any LGBT books you’ve read which you think should be better known? Comment and let me know!

You Are Not the One by Vestal McIntyre
The short stories in this debut book exhibit a full spectrum of characters from a tender sensitive boy with a pet octopus to a young woman working in new media whose plans to acquire a new gay best friend backfire. McIntyre’s writing shows tremendous psychological insight into the mess people make of their lives. He’s also written an excellent novel called “Lake Overturn” which you’ll want to race to after experiencing the humour and intelligence of these stories.

The Repercussions by Catherine Hall
Only published last year, Hall’s tremendous novel about war and love spanning across a century deserves much more attention. She handles two equally compelling parallel narratives which come together in the end to deliver a tremendous emotional punch. It made me cry. It’s especially impressive how Hall writes about the genuine love that can develop between gay and straight individuals.

Fall on Your Knees by Ann-Marie MacDonald
This is a large family epic which is one of those reads you can’t help racing through despite its length. MacDonald’s writing is so compelling. Not only does she explore complex issues to do with sexuality but also race, religion and the arts all within a story that is absolutely enthralling and characters whose lives you experience through many stages.

Blue Boy by Rakesh Satyal
A sensitive adolescent boy named Kiran grows up in the suburbs of Cincinnati and believes himself to be the reincarnation of Krishna when he notices his skin starts glowing blue. This novel is so endearing and thoughtful it’s a coming of age tale like no other. It will make you want to laugh as often as it will make you cry while reading about Kiran's struggle to understand his burgeoning sexuality and grow into a new identity.

Trumpet by Jackie Kay
“Trumpet” tells the story of a fictional jazz performer named Joss Moody whose death reveals he lived his life as a man but was a biological woman. This beautifully written and powerful novel explores grief and the complexities of gender in a way so rare and wonderful it’s a book you’ll never forget. Kay writes tremendous short stories as well, but the story told in this novel is exceptionally special.

The Torturer’s Wife by Thomas Glave
This group of short stories is both political and personal. It explores specific instances of historical injustice where ordinary people are caught in terrible situations because of their politics, class, race and sexuality. Some of the stories also explore the less talked about troubles within the gay community in regards to self-hatred and prejudice against people who are HIV+. These stories are powerful and vibrantly alive.

Hotel de Dream by Edmund White
White is probably the most famous author on this list. Although many readers are familiar with his memoirist fiction, his historical novels are less well known. This novel takes an enticing nugget from history and creates a story around a rumour whose historical accuracy can never be verified. The author Stephen Crane was said to have written a novel about a boy prostitute which he later destroyed without publishing. Here White brings this tale alive with real heart and sophistication to make a compelling rich story about Crane's friendship with a forgotten queer boy who lived in the fringes of society.

Lost Girls by Alan Moore & Melinda Gebbie
This graphic novel brings together three of literature’s most beloved female characters: Alice in Wonderland, Dorothy Gale and Wendy from Peter Pan. It transports them to the historically-specific point of an Austrian hotel in 1913. The women vary wildly in age but all discover new sides to their adult sexuality as they have various homosexual and heterosexual encounters with guests, staff... and each other! This book is not just a bawdy romp; it's a meaningful exploration of desire and identity created by an author and illustrator who are husband and wife in real life.

Send Me by Patrick Ryan
Ryan depicts a multi-layered view of a family in this novel composed of interlinked stories. Hopscotching through time, you see members of the family at different points which together make a complete picture of their complex relationships to each other. At the same time it explores individual struggle and a diversity of gay experience from an introverted gay son to an outgoing gay son with AIDS. It’s a memorable superb novel that shouldn’t be forgotten.

Edinburgh by Alexander Chee
This novel presents the life of a boy named Fee as if he were a mythic fox. He has a troubled teenage existence where sex is excruciatingly complex and suicide becomes a tantalizing prospect that hovers near. This novel has a special place in my heart as it is set in my home state of Maine. It was a tremendous debut which first appeared in 2002 and it’s exciting to know that Chee’s much-awaited second novel “The Queen of the Night” will appear early next year!

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
5 CommentsPost a comment

When trying to show how most of our lives are lived on the surface while all sorts of wild desires and fantasies remain hidden inside us, traditional fiction usually only shows tiny hints of this multi-layered reality in the thoughts of characters and their dramatic actions. In fairy tales this sublimated fear and lust explodes like a geyser. Although the more traditional kinds of these tales are usually sugared for children, Kirsty Logan has written stories which are decidedly for adults due to their frankness of feeling and the complexity of their ideas.

Some stories in this short, powerful book play upon tales we’re already familiar with giving a different perspective or reconfiguring their limited morality. In ‘Matryoshka’ when the “villain” sister ends up alone while the maid she ardently desires ultimately gets to wear the pretty shoes and win the prince it feels like the most devastating kind of romantic tragedy. When the narrator of ‘Witch’ stumbles upon the notorious feared woman who lives in a hut in the woods she discovers that her ostracism from society is of her own making and her alternative lifestyle is far preferable from living with the mainstream. In ‘All the Better to Eat You With’ which is a very short tale told all in dialogue the meaning stretches out to encompass more universal philosophical ideas about the survival struggle of all species which are divided between hunters and the hunted. Characters speaking collectively in the story ‘Underskirts’ emphatically declare themselves as outside of traditional time-honoured stories “We were not the stepmothers from fairy tales” as they sell their daughters into a salacious wealthy household out of financial necessity. The title character of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ is cast in a present day starkly realistic setting. In this story the unfolding narrative of a girl who suffered sexual assault after being drugged at a party is ingeniously told backwards so that the hard realism of the event strikes the reader like a hammer. It also meaningfully shows the psychology of a young woman who is trying to forget the event rather than go through the difficulty of reporting it. Far from frivolous, these twists on familiar fantasies are serious stuff.

These imaginative stories are also very playful, funny and sexy. Some are set in grand, old-world settings like a country estate where the lady of the house is known to take in select local country girls for indulgent happenings. Still others take place in the recognizable gritty reality of the present where couples are separated through the necessity of keeping self-sustaining work or struggle with the difficulty of pregnancy. Take for instance, this line from ‘A Skull of Saints’: “People are more than DNA, she knows, but if she could feel their child from her insides, know him with her own flesh the way that Hope does, it would be better. It would make sense. He would feel more like her own; he would be more than just an idea.” This story explores what the real significance of empathy and familial relationships in the way people relate to and think about each other. Yet these stories cleverly bend what’s real and stretch into the fantastic so that children grow antlers or tiger tails in ‘Una and Coll are not Friends.’ The story is told in their voices which sound like any adolescent you might overhear on the street. But the physical imposition of animal appendages makes a powerful statement about the meaning of diversity and divisions which can occur within minority groups. In the story ‘Origami’ a woman waits for her husband who is ceaselessly delayed by work and spends her time making a man out of folded paper. With this oddball detail it makes a powerful comment on the sense of complex isolation one can feel within a committed relationship: “She wasn’t lonely, she was victorious.”

Most of these stories squeeze at the prickly heart of love to make fresh revelatory statements about the meaning of relationships. The title story includes a woman who must rent a heart to begin new romances. In another story a woman takes a companion of a coin operated boy. These aren’t just conceptual ideas in the story, but have a physical impact upon the characters. As is vital in the best absurdist fiction, these weird details are treated in the narratives as completely natural so the meaning of their inclusion adds a forceful complicated layer to the progression of the unfurling story. The diversity of love is demonstrated in different stories involving romance that is lesbian, gay, straight and in-between. Female sexuality in particular is assiduously explored over a range of stories. The story ‘Momma Grows a Diamond’ is one of the most beautifully crafted stories about a girl’s coming of age that I’ve ever read. Girls are initially given the names of flowers, but as they blossom into adulthood they take on the names of jewels. Logan writes at one point: “Aren’t you tired of being a flower, Violet? Momma says to me one morning from the depths of her bed. Flowers crush so easy, baby, but nothing breaks a jewel.” This description of a necessary toughening of character in women is a meaningful and different way to see how personalities change with adulthood out of a need to deal with a new kind of social environment. There is also a particular kind of masculine aggression ingeniously represented in the story ‘The Broken West.” I’ve heard it said before that when two men look each other in the eyes they only ever think one of two things ‘I want to fuck you’ or ‘I want to kill you.’ This idea is demonstrated in the line “Daniel can’t tell if he’s been fighting or fucking, and it doesn’t really matter. Faces look different close up, and the only way to get that close to a stranger is to kiss them or choke them.” These stories cleverly play with gender to show how it sometimes determines or heedlessly defies the ways in which sex plays out or how love manifests.

An Altered Book: Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Andersen - by artist Susan Hoerth

An Altered Book: Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Andersen - by artist Susan Hoerth

Logan also displays a diverse range of narrative techniques throughout so that some stories are told in short bursts of revolving first person narration while others like ‘Tiger Palace’ has a commanding narrator who leads you manipulatively through the tale and makes you question the meaning of “stories” themselves. Some tales are whimsical and retain elusive meanings. Others are slotted more firmly in particular kinds of genre, but draw into them innovative subject matter. In the haunting, melancholy story ‘Feeding’ a man prepares a nursery while his female partner becomes increasingly obsessed with tending to her garden at night. The creepy tone and continuous image of a trowel hitting dirt makes this story as eerily tense as any psychologically-rich horror story. In a completely different style the story ‘The Man From the Circus’ uses a girl’s newfound profession as a trapeze artist as a significant metaphor for taking a necessary chance in life by plunging dangerously into the unknown world.

As you can tell from my enthusiastic attempt to untangle the meaning of these stories, despite their relative brevity they contain a wealth of ideas. Kirsty Logan is very clever in the way she uses a range of writer’s tools to create the most effect style of storytelling to fit the diverse subject matters she covers. Having been a teenage lover of absurdist drama, I'm thrilled by the way she warps reality in her prose to stimulate the imagination. She crafts disarming images that are imbued with unusual meaning. “The Rental Heart and Other Stories” is a fantastically refreshing read and leaves you thinking about things in a new way. These stories have picked up awards and been included on prize lists both individually and as a collection itself which is a testament to their good quality.

Watch a video of Kirsty Logan discussing the nature of fairytales here:

I always admire a novel that is wise enough to raise questions about the central dilemmas of our lives without feeling the need to give definitive answers. It shows a mature understanding for how we really stumble blindly through it all though we pretend that we can see. To me it feels there is no greater mystery than our relationships to each other. How do we really see the people we love? As they are or as we believe them to be? How do our memories of them colour our feelings towards them? How do they really feel about us? In what way do our own feelings inform what we think others think about us? “All the Days and Nights” challenges us to consider these queries with the story of aging ailing artist Anna and her younger husband John who has left her for good.

Anna narrates the novel directly to John recalling their life together and the way his image has been made famous in the multiple portraits of him she’s produced. In their New England home she struggles to produce a new painting of her friend and agent Ben who has descended upon her because she has broken off communication with the outside. She has a combative relationship with her assistant, fellow artist and sometimes muse Vishni – a bond that feels as spiky and co-dependant as that which existed between Virginia Woolf and her cook Sophie Farrell. The difficult relationships between the characters are depicted evocatively with pointed conversations and emotionally-jarring reminiscences. 

It’s admirable the way that Govinden writes of the relationship between Anna and John as being totally unique. It seems an obvious thing; after all, every relationship is unique. But we so often affix the labels of marriage or friends or lovers or parents to the people we know and in doing so reduce the complexity of these bonds. So much of what we feel for each other lies in between these notions and mutates as we grow older with each other – yet the labels so often remain the same. Govinden breaks through these restrictions. He conveyed this ambiguity of feeling beautifully in his depiction of another couple in his previous novel (which I reviewed here last year) “Black Bread, White Beer” as well. To Anna and John the word married seems something of a farcical label affixed for convenience rather than as an accurate way of describing the deep bond that they share.

The novel beautifully asserts the central mission of the artist: to memorialize what is ephemeral and fleeting. For Anna the process of creating “is an ongoing act of revelation” giving to her an understanding of her subjects and also fixing an interpretation of them which memory by itself cannot. Anna’s attempts to capture John have resulted in multiple portraits which catalogue their life together and the feelings that have passed between them. Now John is on a mission to discover what these really mean while leaving Anna behind. He also leaves actual photos of them together which Anna thinks are “a happiness you [John] no longer wish to remember.” This all sounds rather mournful and tragic. But I think that rather than destroying what remains of their relationship by leaving, John’s mission is more a desperate act to reclaim their life together and better understand how Anna really sees him.

novel's epigraph by Frida Kahlo "I leave you my portrait so that you will have my presence all the days and nights that I am away from you."

novel's epigraph by Frida Kahlo "I leave you my portrait so that you will have my presence all the days and nights that I am away from you."

Memories are planted throughout this novel like questions which exist only to garner other questions. Rather than acting as touchstones to arrive at neat reconciliations and resolutions, Anna and John’s recollections make them grapple more for an understanding of the full complexity of what has passed. It’s observed that memories take on a ferocious charm in the way they hound the mind in our advanced years: “The torturer and salve that memory becomes in old age.” The characters noble method of dealing with this accumulation of experience is to create because art is also what we produce and consume to make sense of the impossible joys and tragedies of life. For Anna: “This is the only way that I can understand things, using order and method to make sense of chaos” It’s an inspiring mission, but also a fervently possessive one as Anna also acknowledges “something to be shared inevitably comes from a selfish hand.”

This short, powerful novel depicts a relationship so skilfully condensed that it blossoms in the reader’s mind suggesting experience far beyond what the pages contain. It expounds upon the complex mission for creating art and the transformative experience of viewing art. Govinden shows his characters’ quest to transcend the detail of life and reach for a better understanding of its meaning. It’s a book where certain images and moments really linger in the mind. Since it’s under 200 pages if you can spare a morning and afternoon to devote to reading it in full I’d recommend it. This way you can really immerse yourself in the cumulative power of the prose and swallow this moving story in one greedy gulp.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesNiven Govinden
2 CommentsPost a comment

“Thirst” reveals a side of London not often seen. A Siberian woman named Alena is caught attempting to shoplift a pair of shoes by the store’s security man Dave. The reason why she tries to commit this act of robbery isn’t what you’d immediately expect. Dave forgives Alena despite the trouble it causes him with his superior. Seeing that Alena is in a distressed position he goes even further and allows her to stay in his small apartment until she can get back on her feet. What follows is an unlikely bond between two people who have experienced a lot of hardship in their lives. 

Accounts of Alena and Dave’s personal histories slip in between sections of the present-day narrative. This is handled so delicately it’s like one hand sliding over another revealing the layers of their lives. It also creates tension in the story as both of them have emerged from very bad situations and it makes you constantly wonder how they get to the point where they find each other. They create a strange sort of domestic bliss together, but when Alena’s past imposes itself upon the present they are abruptly torn apart and it’s only through a massive leap of faith on Dave’s part that they might find one another again. This is a love story. It’s one which is made up of two characters who have endured strife and disappointment, but need to find the courage to open up to one another for a chance at harmony.

It’s a known tale: an immigrant comes to a “developed” country and finds everything isn’t as rosy as the way they imagined it. Where this book departs is the pernicious way that Alena turns from the oppressed to the oppressor – or, at least, an instrument used to foster oppression. This produces a dark and twisted psychology. It shows the complex layers of a hidden underbelly of society that feeds on abuse, fear and secrecy. It’s only through a tremendous act of will that Alena is able to break free. She’s extremely vulnerable being lost in the giant organism of London and it’s only through chance that she meets with an act of kindness from Dave. A querulous outsider might view such an instant bond as unbelievable, but Hudson eloquently explains Dave’s reasoning like this: “He’d admit it, he was reckless. Blind to the danger of letting a strange stranger have everything of him. And though it was her ripe, warm beauty that had made it hard for him to think around her at first, it was all the rest that was the hook that snagged in his insides, never to be pulled out.” There can be something about a person which catches you and makes you take a chance on something you’d normally back away from.

There is more here than the romantic heart. What this novel is really about is the distance between ourselves and strangers – particularly in large cities and when travelling. What’s the right amount of empathy to show to strangers? Surely you can’t walk around with an open heart to everyone in need. You’d never get across the city. Never get to work on time. But if you walk around with a stony gaze you begin to feel inhuman, jaded, disconnected. Likewise this novel shows our own desperation for kindness when out of our element. Dave embarks on a long journey to an extremely remote part of Siberia where the smallest gesture of kindness can seem like a life raft. Of course, this book doesn’t offer a solution to this question of distance. How can there be one? But it does point out the reverberating effects of both large and small bits of kindness. Moreover it shows the way regret can pile up in the backs of our minds – haunted by instances where we wanted to reach out and didn’t. Hudson acknowledges that: “it is hard to live with the knowledge of certain things, let alone a knowledge that allowed you to imagine you could have done something to change things, to help someone you love.” “Thirst” reveals the best and the worst of humanity. It shows the way the world perpetually opens and closes to us and that there is an endless stream of possibilities. Whether you choose to only smile or hold out your hand or walk on by: opportunity goes both ways and there is always the potential of a connection.

I also loved Hudson's first novel which I wrote about at the end of last year here. She's one of the most creative literary voices in the UK right now. But, given Hudson's earlier title, I was hoping this new novel would be named something more elaborate like "The Thirsty Siberian Who Stole My Shoes, Ate All My IceCream & Barely Had Change for a Fiver." However, the brevity of her chosen title suits the subject matter perfectly.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesKerry Hudson

The UK Miscarriage Association notes that “Even though about one in four pregnancies ends in miscarriage, there’s a lot that we still don’t know about why it happens.” This is a loss which affects a lot of couples hoping to conceive and give birth, but it is something rarely acknowledged openly or discussed except amongst the privacy of family. Negotiating how to deal with it is a strain that can threaten to break a relationship. Black Bread White Beer follows a couple who have just experienced a miscarriage and their day immediately following this trauma. They are in their mid-thirties and feel compelled to get their family started soon since the clock is ticking. “Even when it felt like they were at their closest, physically all-consuming, somewhere, in the crook of an arm, a cavity in their pumping hearts, was a final gap waiting to be filled.” The novel concentrates largely on the husband Amal’s perspective as he picks up his wife from the hospital and drives her to her parents’ house. In these high-pressure moments Niven Govinden brilliantly explores the minutia of how a couple functions and the dysfunctions which threaten to split them apart. Amidst relating the story of this particular couple he deals with larger issues of familial responsibility, faith, gender, racism and social expectation.

Every moment of this novel is filled with emotional tension since the knowledge of the couple’s immediate loss is felt so heavily between them. Before Amal retrieves his wife from an overnight stay in the hospital it is there. “Even before she returns, he feels the disappointment, self-blame, hanging in the air, but it does not seem irreparable. It is nothing that faith cannot fix.” Amal has abandoned the faith he was raised with from his Indian heritage to convert to Christianity before marrying his white girlfriend Claud. The sense of a personal belief system is at odds with feelings of social obligation creating a complexity in how Amal (someone who sees faith largely as symbolic) expresses himself religiously and whether faith can be called upon in an emotionally intense situation such as this one. There are instances where the subtle effects of racism can be felt – not overt or malicious, but modified expectations and reactions to Amal because of his skin colour. As such Amal has a heightened awareness of his otherness amidst Claud, her parents and their largely white community and that his actions might be perceived by them as stemming from his race. “It is the immigrant’s millstone: even in the face of this smug, politically incorrect tediousness he will remain all eyes and teeth, determined never to be less than his most exemplary self.” Being a minority is something Amal is always aware of and it impacts the way he relates to those around him whether those people perceive him as other or not. This self consciousness about race is an issue which is drawn to the surface even more acutely because of the intensity of the couple’s situation.

Govinden also skilfully writes about the different ways men and women currently deal with emotions and how they conceal them from the world. Claud tries to compose herself when concealing the fact of her miscarriage from her parents and strengthen herself to deal with the world. “Her make-up, all four products of it – powder, lipstick, mascara and blush – have made a warrior of her.” Whereas Amal deals with his heartache by secretly getting drunk and eating a lot of junk food before reconnecting with his wife and dealing with his in-laws. “Maybe it is only men who have let the modern age weaken their resilience, crying into baked goods and wallowing into beer.” In this way Govinden shows the way society’s expectations about how men and women should act in public impact upon their private outlets for releasing emotional tension.

At one horrifying point Amal discovers his wife’s parents have printed up cards to invite their friends to a party in order to celebrate their becoming grandparents. The sense of expectation that the prospect of a new baby creates is something that reverberates beyond the couple actually having it. “Everyone around them is using their due date to put an end to their personal issues. They are all after a clean slate.” Prospects for a new baby are not only felt by the couple having it, but by everyone around them. It seems cruel that a couple should have to not only deal between themselves with the loss of expectation following their miscarriage, but also the emotional investment and hopes of those around them. As such, Claud retains their secret about her loss trying to maintain control and privacy about her tumultuous emotions.

Black Bread White Beer deals with the private life and daily workings of a relationship better than any book I can think of. The miscarriage is a catalyst which draws to the surface a multiplicity of issues which always existed between Amal and Claud, but were often paved over by the niceties of comfortable routines. The great test of this is whether their bond is strong enough to withstand the challenge of all this surfacing in the face of such a profound disruption and loss. Govinden sympathetically portrays how relationships can only continue if there is a process of constant renegotiation for the desires, expectations and faults of each person involved. For all the emotional turmoil raised in this novel, it conveys a tremendous sense of hope and strength to continue on despite tragic circumstances.


Listen below to a wonderful interview between Niven Govinden and bookish man extraordinaire Simon Savidge from YWTB

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesNiven Govinden