I love literary prizes. I especially look forward to the Booker Prize. Every year I hope to find a masterpiece when the Booker longlist is announced. I used to believe these selections were the creme de la creme, and, though I’m less gullible now, I enjoy reading and blogging about the few I manage to read every year.
I ordered six from the longlist this year.
Yvvette Edwards’s longlisted debut novel, A Cupboard Full of Coats, is published by a small press, Oneworld. I was intrigued not so much by the description of the book as by the small press. Edwards’s novel is well-written, skillfully-plotted, and suspenseful, and if you liked Emma Donoghue’s Room, you might like A Cupboard Full of Coats. (I disliked Room). The narrator of A Cupboard Full of Coats is an adult, unlike the narrator of Room, but is also oppressed by violence.
A Cupboard Full hooks you on the first page when Jinx, the narrator, announces that she killed her mother 14 years ago. She starts reminiscing about the past when an old friend of her mother’s, Lemon, shows up on the doorstep.
“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.”
Jinx is an embalmer who works mainly on black people, doing their hair and makeup for funeral parlors. Lemon wants to know why she doesn’t work in a beauty parlor instead.
“I could not explain that it was the only thing I truly enjoyed, that among the dead was the only time I felt happy, that I was able to feel while I did my work: pride, vanity, grief, sadness, something. That while I worked on those cold bodies, I sometimes felt myself humming.”
He tells her that Berris, her mother’s abusive lover, convicted of her murder 14 years ago, is out of prison. Lemon feels guilty for his own involvement with the couple, and tells Jinx the story of his and Berris’ relationship, beginning with their childhood in the West Indies, and continuing in London.
And Jinx relates her own story to us. She and her beautiful mother, a widow, lived alone in her father’s house until Berris moved in. He terrified the women, frequently battered the mother, and turned Jinx against her mother, for always forgiving Berris, despite the violence.
Edwards has a bold, quirky voice, and the narratives of Jinx and Lemon are skillfully interwoven. The writing is uneven, however, becoming less flashy as the novel continues. Edwards certainly can write, though, and some people are bound to like this more than I do. Honestly? I hate the violence. But it is a good first novel, as is Stephen Kelman’s Pigeon English (reviewed here), also longlisted for the Booker. Since I’ve only read two, I will rate them here:
1. Yvvette Edwards
2. Stephen Kelman
But I would give the Booker to neither. Since I’m not a judge, though…