A Cupboard Full of Coats, by Yvvette Edwards

Purchased from AbeBooks.com

For fourteen years, Jinx has been living in a public version of virtual secrecy — there’s a physical person there and she goes about all the usual activities, but it is a facade. The real person is hiding behind that facade, knowing that the subterfuge cannot continue forever. The charade comes to an end with the reappearance of Lemon at her front door “while the crocuses in the front garden were flowering and before the daffodil buds had opened”:

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.

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15 Responses to “A Cupboard Full of Coats, by Yvvette Edwards”

  1. Frisbee Says:

    I agree with you about this novel. It’s well-written but predictable, and very violent–and after awhile that’s all there is, violence for the shock value. The battered woman syndrome is documented elsewhere, but this almost reads like an outline. I think Roddy Doyle’s The Woman Who Walked into Doors presented the PTSD more believeably and less simply.

    Edwards IS a good writer, but this novel is an odd one to include on the longlist. It’s not good enough–I don’t know what the judges are thinking.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Frisbee: I agree with your assessment, including the Roddy Doyle.

  3. Isabel Says:

    I think that the Booker people aren’t looking for the best executed novel, just the best ideas.

    Shame

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Isabel: I agree that this year’s jury has a different idea than I do of what represents an “excellent” book (although there are a couple that I quite like — Barnes and Pick). I have found reading this year’s longlist a frustrating experience.

  5. kimbofo Says:

    I second your championing of Sam Sevlon’s Lonely Londoners — it’s a book I still think about more than a year after having read it.

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kim: Have you read the other two (Moses Ascending and Moses Migrating)? They are not quite as good as The Lonely Londoners but, for those who like Moses, they are definitely worth the effort. I must admit that it is probably unfair to Ms. Edwards for me to be making the comparison.

  7. kimbofo Says:

    Moses Ascending is in the TBR (somewhere), but Moses Migrating is a bit hard to track down — or at least it was last time I looked. (I have a feeling we’ve had this discussion before.)

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Whoops — I think we have. Moses Migrating is worth finding.

  9. Isabel Says:

    Book Depository has a 2008 edition of Moses Migrating for sale.

  10. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Jinx and Lemon?

    The quotes don’t grab me. I’m sure it’ll have fans but these are themes that have been explored well by others and I’m already struggling for space on the shelf.

    I’ll third the Selvon recommendation. The Lonely Londoners is superb. Moses Ascending isn’t as good and has some definite flaws, but is still well worth reading. I haven’t read Moses Migrating yet. I must track it down.

  11. Sazerac Says:

    I’m currently in the middle of reading this novel, so haven’t read the above comments in full for fear of getting ahead of myself. However, I’m wondering is it just me, or does the 16-year-old seem rather naive for her age in that environment at that time? (Being fobbed off with sweets, etc?) Reading this without the benefit of being aware of her age, I would have put her a couple of years younger. Which in turn might have got us into Lolita-style terrain and muddied the waters even further. I’ll finish the book later today and pop back for proper look at all the above comments. Great forum.

  12. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Sazerac: Welcome — and thanks for your comment here and on the other threads. You raise an interesting issue with the 16-year-old Jinx that hadn’t occured to me when I was reading the book. It is true that parts of her seemed more like a pre-teen — but the author needs for her to be older when it comes to the part of the book that you have not got to yet.

    • Sazerac Says:

      I finished reading last night, and was left with the thought that it was a perfectly adequate piece of work as far as that goes, but if a Martian landed I’d hate to think it was offered ‘A Cupboard Full of Coats’ as an example of the finest writing du jour. I take your point about her age, though I’m not sure it would matter that much whether she was 28 or 30 in the later story. I still have a problem with a 16-year-old looking at the way people’s feet are pointing as a guide to whether or not they have had sex.

  13. Cian James Says:

    i can assure you that mrs edwards is a good writer as she is my god mother

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