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Music for the Off-Key: Twelve Macabre Short Stories

Courttia Newland

" I see White gyal fin’ a nex’ Mandingo fe’ please ‘er’, Karen said snidely. I shrugged. 

‘Minor, ma, I wasn’t chirpin’ her anyway. Gimme a rum an’ Coke, will ya?’ 

‘So, rudebwoy, you ah lick the hard stuff now?’ . "

Reviewed by Sheila Cornelius

"A collection of surreal short stories with Black people as the main characters" is how the author describes this book. These bleak but hopeful stories with unexpected twists typically pose an intriguing dilemma with a sardonic outcome.

The protagonists typically make the wrong decision for reasons beyond their control, and suffer the consequences. Sometimes betrayed despite good intentions, the characters more often meet a fate that is unusual or unexpected but timely and deserved. Some stories offer a happy ending of sorts, as in Flight of Freedom where a depressed no-hoper grows wings, or Smile Mannequin, Smile about a female model-maker who finds companionship in a life-size doll, or in His Healing Hands, where a young man finds a lost gift is replaced by another. However, there is always a sense that the closure is temporary or a possible source of even greater distress.

By depicting their difficult circumstances the author enlists our sympathy for his protagonist, creating a suspenseful anticipation of the outcome whilst we enjoy the unusual situations. In the first and most compelling of the stories, Suicide Note, we enter the mind of a remorseful paedophile who arranges to be assassinated, changes his mind, but can’t make contact with the potential killer. Longer than most in the collection, the story’s strengths are the descriptions of visceral sexual encounters and the depiction of an obsession that destroys the life and relationships of an artist: "She was tight, wet, her pleasure dampening her inner thighs. He rubbed harder as she became moister, deeper as her hips writhed in pleasure, faster as she sucked hard on his tongue. He felt orgasm flood her body and knew Suzanne was his."

In the inventive The Great White Hate an atmosphere of happy anticipation is destroyed by casual racism and a bizarre outcome which threatens to destroy a young man’s hopes. Characters with humane intentions are taken advantage of, as in Gold where a woman loses her job after befriending a beggar. Alternatively they are forced into crime by peer pressure, as happens in All Crew, a study of relationships within a street gang culture, with strong contemporary relevance. 

The stories succeed through the sheer energy of the writing and the authentic feel of the locations and the characters, revealed in dialogue and action. They offer insights into issues of London life and characters beyond the false glamour of the London promoted in popular movies, such as Hampstead and Notting Hill, or novels backed resulting from superficial research giving a recognisable structure but without the authentic atmosphere of Newland’s stories. 

Sheila Cornelius gained a degree in English Literature at Goldsmiths College, then taught in London’s East End whilst studying for an M.Ed. (Language and Literature in Society). After a further MA in Media Studies, she wrote a book on Chinese film. Currently studying Chinese and Spanish, she writes theatre and film reviews and short stories.









PublisherPeepal Tree Press

Publication Date: 2006

Paperback/Hardback? Paperback

First collection?: Yes

Author bio: Courttia Newland was born in 1973 in West London. Besides short stories and plays he has written three novels: The Scholar, Society Within and Snakeskin. He co-founded the Tell Tales collective, a short story initiative.

Read an interview  with Courttia Newland

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