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The short stories contained in Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah debut collection “Friday Black” have a startling way of mixing everyday realism with the fantastic. Many characters are working class individuals struggling to keep their families going while labouring in retail or the night shift at a warehouse. But at the same time they can also be imbued with powers from a Twelve-tongued God, become a spirit who knows how to quell the murderous impulses of bullied boys or a 14 year old female super killer who survives daily nuclear explosions. Violence abounds throughout the stories. There are crazed shoppers who kill everyone in their way to get to sale items and there are groups who commit bloody acts of violence in retaliation for racially-motivated murders. The author amplifies some of the most contentious social issues of today in scenarios which are sadly not far from the truth. Everything from gun control to racism to abortion to genetic engineering are integrated into warped versions of reality giving a new view on these hot topics. The stories are powerfully imaginative while being darkly funny as well as heartbreakingly emotionally honest.  

Some of these tales worked better than others for me. I admire how in 'The Finkelstein 5' the story switches back and forth between two narratives. One half portrays a court trial where a white man is exonerated for beheading five black children with a chainsaw. The other half is from the perspective of a narrator who becomes part of a “Naming” gang that tortures random white people while calling out the names of the slayed black children. It felt really effective how this dual story describes a society where facts and truth have become so twisted up in the willpower of belief. The defence lawyer says at one point “if you believe something, anything then that's what matters most. Believing. In America we have the freedom to believe.” In a justice system that has allowed so many rank instances of injustice to go unpunished, it’s tragically unsurprising that some feel vigilante justice is the only option available. But this story gets at the ambivalence of such a path while delivering a riveting tale that’s a cross between an episode of Black Mirror and The Purge film series.

Not all of the stories conjure up wild fantasies or show instances of extreme violence. Another story ‘The Lion & The Spider’ also uses an alternating dual narrative where in one half a father tells his children stories based in Caribbean folklore. The other half shows a young man left to care for his ailing mother while finishing school and working a job after the father unexpectedly leaves for a long period of time. This creates an emotionally-charged atmosphere within the story as feelings of youthful innocence are paired against the onerous responsibilities of a premature adulthood when a father shirks his duty. Some of the most touching moments in this collection come when well-meaning children are forced into being carers for their parents such as a young man who takes his father to a labyrinthine hospital in 'The Hospital Where' or a young man who wants to win a jacket for his mother in a sales-driven retail competition.

The violent chaos of a Black Friday sale.

The violent chaos of a Black Friday sale.

Sometimes the creative slant the author takes on certain issues doesn’t work quite as smoothly. 'Lark Street' describes a man who comes under the accusatory gaze of his girlfriend’s aborted twin foetuses. While the story takes seriously this emotionally harrowing dilemma it felt like it revelled a little too freely in the grotesque nature of such a scenario. Equally 'Light Spitter' which describes an instance of a campus gun slaying relies a little too heavily on conventional ideas of angelic influence – even with the twist that even the “irredeemable” has a moral core. Still other stories have a surprising degree of repetitive elements like the diligent mall employees in both 'How to Sell a Jacket as Told by IceKing' and ‘Friday Black’. But the later title story felt much more successful in hilariously playing up what’s become the most ridiculous post-Thanksgiving annual retail tradition.

One of the most striking things about this book is the consistent feeling that working class young people are frequently forced to compromise their values and education in order to make a living. Sometimes individuals must play into racial stereotypes or swallow their pride in the face of blatant racism in order to maintain their jobs. There are also asides which testify to being made to feel otherness: “A nurse called out sounds that we understood as her attempt to pronounce our last name.” Such feelings are most dramatically described in the story 'Zimmer Land' where an employee submits to being the continuous victim in violent role playing scenarios that are purportedly about “interactive justice engagement”. This story cleverly portrays the hypocrisy of profit-driven initiatives that claim to teach morality but actually perpetuate stereotypes and bigotry. I’m impressed how daring and forceful the author is in creatively describing instances of painful injustice and social inequality. He’s certainly an impressive new author well worth paying attention to.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson

It’s been a long time since I’ve felt as conflicted about a novel as I am about “The Lonely Hearts Hotel” by Heather O’Neill. This is a book which arrestingly portrays the brutal abuse of women and orphans with the fantastical touch of a fairy tale. It creatively shows how children’s imaginations can colour their world as a defence against the horrors of their reality. The narrative is strewn with fascinating concepts and imagery that made me frequently pause to think about their meaning. Yet, as compelling as I found the writing in this book I felt at times deeply uncomfortable with the way issues such as physical/sexual abuse, prostitution and drug abuse sat within the humorous/whimsical style of the novel. I have no doubt the author takes these issues very seriously and I could feel behind the magical flair a lot of anger for the injustice experienced by vulnerable children, women and the poor. However, I continuously questioned throughout my reading whether this is the most appropriate way to portray traumatic experiences. I think the point was to raise questions and it certainly did that for me. At its heart, this novel is as deeply provocative and unsettling as the highly intelligent fiction of Angela Carter.

“The Lonely Hearts Hotel” begins in the early 1900s with the unfortunate stories of two young mothers whose boy and girl wind up in a Montreal orphanage. The majority of the book follows the development of these children Rose and Joseph (who everyone calls Pierrot). Although boys and girls in the orphanage are kept separate by the strict nuns who oversee them, Rose and Pierrot develop a deep bond and form a curious kind of double-act with acrobatics, dancing and improvised piano playing. The jealousy of a manipulative third party creates a split between the pair and they are finally physically separated when Pierrot is adopted by an encouraging elderly wealthy man and Rose is employed as an indulgent governess to the children of a notorious gangster leader. Their stories spiral into bizarre and surprising adventures that take them through the Great Depression, but are always tinged with the sorrow of their lost burgeoning romance.

It’s so intriguing how O’Neill writes about the experience of childhood. It’s particularly striking how she describes the way adolescents develop their use of language and claim it as their own. She observes how “Although the two had only known harsh terms and words of discipline, they had managed to transform them into words of love.” The way in which the children use words with each other redefines that language as something empowering rather than something used as a weapon to diminish them. They also possess the innate powers of creativity, talent and imagination to build themselves out of the desultory circumstances they were born into.

Throughout Rose’s upbringing she imagines a large bear who dances with her. This image is just as innocently charming as it is alarming suggesting that danger continuously orbits around the girl. This is reinforced by the statement that “A young girl’s body is the most dangerous place in the world, as it is the spot where violence is most likely to be enacted.” Just as girls are in danger of being violated, the author also shows the way a young boy’s developing body is vulnerable to the predatory control and manipulation of those who are older and in a position of power. The author shows how a boy’s early experiences of sexual abuse continue to affect him throughout his life leading to difficulties with intimacy and drug abuse. I was particularly struck by how she describes his continuous craving for drugs even after he sobers up like a taxidermist’s reanimated wolf corpse which stalks him. It’s no wonder that Rose surmises at one point that “Childhood is such a perverse injustice, I don’t know how anyone survives it without going crazy.” Interestingly, Eimear McBride also considers the long-lasting trauma after a young man’s sexual abuse in an entirely different style within her novel “The Lesser Bohemians” (which is also longlisted for this year’s Baileys Prize).

Along with the stories of Rose and Pierrot's eccentric behaviour, there are scenes where flowers complain to one another and a timid rat expresses his nervousness about moving to the big city. By invoking fantasy, O’Neill appears to be be saying that a childish sense of wonder and ambiguity are essential elements in maintaining a morally just world. People who dominate and attempt to control others believe they are justified in doing so because they are fixed in their own certain reality. She writes: “Perhaps the most dangerous people in the world are the ones who believe in right and wrong but what they ascribe to ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ is completely insane. They are bad with a conviction that they are good. It is that idea that is the impetus behind evil.” Even though Rose and Pierrot experience the most brutally harsh realities of life, they retain their faith in the power of a youthful creativity which gradually morphs as they grow into sophisticated artistic expressions in music and performance.

Something I have difficulty with in novels that describe ambitious forms of artistic expression are overzealous reactions to those performances. That’s something which happens frequently in this novel which includes children’s acrobatics, avant-garde performances by clowns, an eccentric clown and dance revue and an intricately composed song. They all enthral anyone who experiences them. Although large crowds can certainly be enraptured by great art, it becomes slightly irksome reading about the success rate for every kind of performance in this novel which elicits over-enthused reactions. This doesn't take into account the grounding factors of artistic failure and the general indifference of the general public - which is sadly more often the result of creative endeavours.

Rose is such a compellingly forthright character. She explores what intrigues her, exudes a large amount of charm and shows an intellectual savviness. Not only does she fearless do what's necessary to survive enormous difficulties but maintains her principles at the same time. Then there is a prostitute who is (appropriately) named Poppy who is a habitual drug user and continuously takes the wrap for other prostitutes. She exhibits a masochism where “She wanted the ugly rage and depravity that came with love.” O’Neill writes in a really fascinating way about women's relationships with their bodies, sex and rivalry with other women.

I have a feeling I'm going to be puzzling over this novel for a lot longer. I felt delighted by how bizarre it was at points, but also unsettled by how casually it could draw in very dark themes. It certainly goes to show me that I shouldn't judge a book by it's cover. Since I hadn't read this author before or anything about this novel when I'd previously seen “The Lonely Hearts Hotel” I thought by the name and the cover that it'd be a frivolously sentimental novel, but it has a lot of deep twisted depths to it. The Baileys Women's Prize longlist invariably introduces me to a book I wouldn't have read otherwise, but gives me a lot to think about. I'll be particularly interested to hear what other people who have read this novel think.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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