He just knocked, that was all, knocked the front door and waited, like he’d just come back with the paper from the corner shop, and the fourteen years since he’d last stood there, the fourteen years since the night I’d killed my mother, hadn’t really happened at all.
I had imagined that moment a thousand times; Lemon had come back for me. He knew everything yet still loved me. Over a decade filled with dreams where he did nothing but hold me close while I cried. Had he come sooner, my whole life might have panned out differently and it might have been possible to smile without effort, or been able to love.
Lemon has come back because Berris has been released from prison: Berris, convicted of the murder of Jinx’s mother (we now have two people who killed her), just days before he was to become her stepfather but some months after his live-in status had dramatically altered teen-age Jinx’s life.
This action all takes place in East London and those four characters (Jinx, her mother, Lemon, Berris) effectively represent the complete cast of the book. They share something else, however, which for me was the strongest part of Edwards’ novel — all can trace their roots to the tiny Caribbean island of Montserrat. If Sam Selvon’s Moses trilogy is the defining standard for portraying the life and lingo of displaced Caribbeans in London, A Cupboard Full of Coats is at least an attempt at providing a modern update.
So let’s look at how Edwards introduces that aspect of her story, in the form of Jinx’s version of how her mother came to London:
She was the only child of a poor, uneducated Montserratian land worker and his semi-literate wife. In an era when it was normal for Caribbean migrants to leave their children behind with relatives as they headed out to the Motherland to make their fortune, with the wild card Hope flapping hard against the ribcage, my grandparents took their daughter with them. Between the three of them, they bore a single cardboard grip, and most of what was inside it belonged to her. Everything I know about them I learned from her, and the sum of everything she said was that they could not have worshipped God himself more than they worshipped the ground she walked on. Full stop.
There is another aspect to the Montserratian “diaspora” that adds to the positive side of this novel: the food. Edwards’ description of some of the kitchen action is enough to send a reader off to the closest exotic food store to pick up ingredients (you’ll have to read the book to find them) and start cooking, instead of reading. And, of course, enjoy the eating, which rather interrupts the reading.
Those threads are put in place quite well by the author in the opening pages of the story. Let me introduce one other element (and there are Potential Spoilers here) which is essential to the story. Berris (who appears only as seen by Jinx and Lemon in the book) has a violent streak, perhaps not uncommon to displaced people in a world whose rules of behavior they don’t really understand. When he gets upset, he beats Jinx’s mother. And then, in an expression of remorse, he buys her an expensive coat. The title of the novel says the rest — the coats do reappear as the novel progresses.
Most of the 250 pages of this novel are devoted to Jinx reviving her memories from 14 years ago — with an awkward literary device, Edwards has a somewhat-drunk Lemon recount his version in lengthy soliloquies to supply another point of view. For what it is worth, I found the past tense stories more interesting than the present tense ones, but I will admit it was a challenge.
This is going to be a much shorter review than is normally featured here because that effectively sums up the novel. Like so many on this year’s list, it wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t very good. This year’s jury has included two versions of books about displaced Black people in London on its longlist — Pigeon English is the other– and I do prefer this to Kelman’s novel. Given what has happened recently with the riots, that inclusion is appropriate but I only wish the examples chosen were better books. Edwards and Kelman both set worthwhile objectives, but I am afraid their results just don’t deliver.
Having said that — and read Sam Selvon’s trilogy — I found A Cupboard Full of Books a frustrating book. It shares, with so many books on this year’s longlist, the characterstic of being a very worthy idea that has been badly executed. Full marks to Yvvette Edwards for her ambition, far lower marks for the delivery. As for the Booker longlist, another very strange choice in a year when so many very good books did not make the first cut.
And if that theme of Caribbean dislocation interests you, do rush out and buy a copy of Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners. It is light years better than this book and much overlooked.