A Book of Blues
 by Courttia Newland

Flambard Press
2011
Second Collection

Awards: Longlisted 2011 Frank O'Connor International Short story Award







"I feel stars crackle and spit like eggs frying in the darkness, squint them into focus until they become scattered dust motes. The music is distant, lost below the resigned sigh of the wind; every now and then a faint song emerges."


Reviewed by Arja Salafranca

This eclectic, diverse, and interesting collection ranges across countries – from the exotic African island of Lamu, off the coast of Kenya, to the heat of Miami, to the coldness of the underground to the gritty, roughly-hewn streets of London. In tone and style too, this collection offers a range: Beach Boy, which opens the book is an intensely lyrical piece; while in All Woman the narrator talks in a Caribbean patois-accent, and other stories zing with humour and sassiness.

I have to start with the achingly beautiful and memorable Beach Boy, a story of such poetry, it lingers on long after the first reading, and a story I wished would carry on.

Palermo, a poet from London, is travelling on a grant from the Arts Council, spending time on Lamu, when he meets the beautifully-named Shalini, a PhD student from Vancouver. What follows is a tender, albeit brief encounter, it must be described as a love affair, such is the depth of the encounter. And yet this layered story moves from beyond the encounter to explore Palermo's uneasy relationship to the boys of the island, who consider this place their turf, and Palermo an outsider. A sense of menace prevails and cuts through the story. We return to the character of Shalini in the final collection in this book, The Bright Side of the Moon, which focuses a spotlight on a period of Shalini's life, and it feels like returning eagerly to an old friend. These two lovers remain startlingly vivid in my mind, taking hold in way that isn't always common in a short story.

Miami Heat is another story that grips the imagination and refuses to let go. Freelance music journo, the zanily-named Serendipity Henry, is assigned to interview the band The Cheeba Monks, "hip-hop hippies". The story begins with the lines: "Anyone could tell that life had been cruel before I got to the airport, and it didn't change once I got there." Words that set the tone of this story.

She's flown from Gatwick, which reminds her of a budget Heathrow, on a press junket to stay at a swish hotel, interview the band and party on. What follows is a rip-roaring, almost breathless story about what's it's like to attend a press junket, travel with people you barely know, get hit on, and generally lurch from disaster to disaster. This long story never lags, and is shot through and carried by Serendipity Henry's droll, amusing voice. And yet there's pathos beneath the humour, a pathos that lifts Miami Heat above the mere telling of a music jouno's ungainly journey.

Underground is a startlingly simple tale – yet quietly powerful story that reaches into the supernatural for inspiration. Joshua is visiting a cemetery, reading the words on a gravestone when a woman appears before him: "Her face thin and pale with cold, her eyes wide and circular." She wears the dress of another century and speaks English in an old-fashioned way, addressing Joshua by another name. A coming together of man and woman across centuries unfolds – a highly believable, and beautiful story of love. You suspend belief, and aren't even aware that you're doing so. Love has seldom been so finely described and conjured up, a definite highlight of this collection.

A clever and amusing story is Passive Smoke, which also leaves a series of chills in its wake. It all begins ordinarily enough: Evie and Max live together in cosy domesticity, except for the fact that Max smokes, and Evie's attempts to get him to quit result in frustration and a strange quirk of togetherness that I won't reveal because the thrust of this story turns on Evie's discovery. It's a story of revenge, but a revenge so sweet and unusual it takes a master of the craft to fashion a story that keeps you hooked, smiling with a simple delight and gleefully reading to the end. And yet, it's also subtly chilling to read of the malice that can fester within a relationship and the hurt that results.

Other stories in the collection look at old friendships and how impossible it is to return to the closeness that has been, and the distance that years bring in Re-Entry; Fresh for '88 brings back the past for a teenager living in a council house, trying to survive childhood and its mean streets; White Goods follows a two friends who have been selling antique goods at Portobello Market for 15 years, rummaging in a household and industrial tip, an experience that leaves the one with a new appreciation for the sweetness of air. Meanwhile, Spider Man, another excellent and quietly powerful story, uses the metaphor of a spider moving across a man's ceiling to explore the trajectory of a relationship and the insidious role of violence.

Newland's stories are memorable, eclectic, pleasingly, unusual and his distinctive voice runs through each well-told tale.


Read a story from this collection on African Writing Online


Arja Salafranca is a short story writer, poet, travel writer and essayist. Author of The Thin Line (Modjaji Books 2010), a debut collection of fiction, as well as two poetry collections, edited two anthologies, winner of the Sanlam award for fiction and poetry, and the Dalro award for poetry. Edits the Life section of The Sunday Independent (Johannesburg).

Arja's other Short Reviews: Best American Short Stories 2010

Susan Millar DuMars "Lights in the Distance"

                     
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Courttia Newland published his first novel, The Scholar, in 1997. Further critically acclaimed work includes Society Within (1999) and Snakeskin (2002). He was the co-editor of IC3: The Penguin Book of New Black Writing in Britain (2000) and has short stories featured in many anthologies. Other books are The Dying Wish and a collection of stories, Music For the Off-Key (both 2006) and The Global Village (2009).

Read an interview with Courttia Newland