Friday, 16 December 2016

BOOK CLUB: A Cupboard Full of Coats by Yvvette Edwards

This month on Book Club, we discuss A Cupboard Full of Coats, by Yvvette Edwards

About the author

Yvvette Edwards is a London author of Caribbean heritage. She is the author of two novels - A Cupboard Full of Coats and The Mother. Her books are peopled by characters who, as she said in an interview for Foyles, “speak in ways I recognize, like people whose roots were forged in the Caribbean who have made their permanent homes here in the UK."

About the Book

A Cupboard Full of Coats is a story of domestic abuse and the way its consequences reverberate down through the years. We see events unfold, not through the eyes of the abused woman, but through the eyes of her daughter, Jinx – sixteen at the time of her mother’s murder and now thirty – and Lemon (short for Philemon), a family friend.

The adult Jinx is emotionally shut down, her relationship with her son and ex-husband in tatters, when Lemon arrives on her doorstep, determined to unearth the past she has tried so hard to bury. Bit by bit, we piece together the events that led up to her mother’s death. As the heartbreaking significance of that cupboard full of coats is revealed, we start to glimpse Jinx and Lemon’s own roles in the tragedy.


A Cupboard Full of Coats is a tender telling of an all-too-common tragedy. How did you find this way of approaching what could be a very difficult subject?

(GEH) I think the author has been very clever in the style she used and the balance is spot on. Gripping, real, thought-provoking and emotional without a hint of melodrama. Getting to know and understand Jinx as an adult gave us an insight into her teenage years from a totally different perspective. The most emotive part for me was the cupboard full of coats - but I don't want to add any spoilers here. Just read it!

(JJ) For me, Edwards's skill is in how much she reveals and how. I saw it as less of an all-too-common tragedy, but all-too-common outcome of tragic events. A damaged child grows into a damaged adult and only has one version of the story. This book is unusual in how it thaws and unpacks those frozen perspectives.

The novel is set in Hackney in East London, but the older generation of characters are all immigrants from the tiny Caribbean island of Monserrat, and the language and rhythms of the island permeate the story. How did you feel that worked? Did it draw you in?

(GEH) Okay, so I listened to the Audiobook version and I thought the narrator was amazing with a capital A! I loved all the voices, particularly Lemon and the teenage friend, Sam. It totally enhanced the story for me, added depth to the characters and drew me into the lifestyle of Hackney at the time.

(JJ) I read the book, but I'm a massive fan of voice, especially when done this well. I know nothing about Monserrat, although felt I had learnt much by the end of the book. The language, rhythms, culture and cadence all had an effect on the pace, which felt relaxing and easing, Ideal for a book which unties old knots.

Edwards’ writing is profoundly sensual–whether she is describing Lemon dancing, plaiting cornrows into Jinx’s hair, or the coats themselves, still carrying the lingering scent of her mother, moulding to her naked shape as perfectly as second skin. Were there particular images that stood out for you?

(GEH) I was going to say the coats first and foremost, but also the description of the Caribbean style food and drink Lemon created and the lyrical way his movements added to the experience. One image is the description of pumpkin soup he cooked, the colour, richness and taste came across borderline erotic. Jinx was an unusual narrator because her inner battles gave differing accounts of the same thing - but with Lemon she couldn't hide her feelings. And on the same note, the sex scenes, I thought were perfectly balanced with enough eroticism and realism to bring the images alive for the reader. Excellent job!

(JJ) The most striking moments are when the sensual echoes the emotional and exposes the emptiness Jinx is only dimly aware she has. The description of her licking the gravy even when the plate was clean struck me as reflective of someone starved, but not of gravy. The echoes of childhood sensory experiences comfort an adult who is convinced she has no need of them. This was an incredibly powerful theme and made the book rich in its subtlety.

Food plays a central role – the scents and tastes of the food Lemon cooks, creating a bridge between Jinx and her past. Saltfish cakes and plantain, “red mullet, perfectly fried, crisp and salty on the outside, moist and steaming on the inside.” Sorrel and Guinness punch. Pumpkin soup, “saffron coloured and bursting with flavour, with small soft pieces of yam and sweet potato and green banana and tania seed and chewy torpedo dumplings.” Why do you think Edwards makes it so important?

(GEH) Yes, as I touched on in the previous answer, I loved the references to the food and it added a colourful and interesting layer to the characters and the story. I think for the author it may have been a nod to her culture, to the importance of food in their family life, how Caribbean family life revolved around food traditions and she wanted to bring this into modern-day Hackney and Jinx's story. And also, maybe to show some comfort amid the cruelty that surrounded Jinx and her mother on a day to day basis, that they had their love of food there no matter how bad life got for them.

(JJ) Food is something I always notice in books and use liberally in my own writing. For me, it is a key aspect of conjuring the environment. This is one aspect of what Edwards does but as Gilly says, there's a deeper sense of identity involved with these tastes and flavours. Preparing food for someone shows love and care and dedication. These meals are an embrace, another way to give someone a hug. A striking element of the cook and cooked-for is how Jinx opens up to the joy of eating these foods. For someone so apparently closed, she abandons herself to the simple act of eating, while the reader feels the layers of distance peel away.

How did the central image of the cupboard full of coats work for you?

(GEH) I thought the title of the novel was unusual, and even the first time Jinx went to that cupboard in her mother's bedroom, I thought it was just a matter of needing them for comfort. But as the layers of the story were gradually peeled away, and the truth revealed, I found it heart breaking. I had pictures of her mother's bruised face, forced smiles and the dread every time a new coat appeared.

(JJ) It fits. Not just because of why the coats and where they came from, but again, the sensuality of these arms, these soft fabrics, these symbols of comfort in more than one way. I also felt a resonance with the concept of cupboard or closet. Closed doors where something scary might lurk. A portal to another world, where imagination can escape. Or simply as a place to hide.

Without giving too much away, did you find the revelation of Jinx’s and Lemon’s role in the tragedy believable? Satisfying?

(GEH) Yes, both. Lemon's role I found totally believable, the balance between love and hate is a fragile one, particularly when weighted by jealousy. With Jinx I did wonder if such a simple act of childhood rebellion would really have left her so scarred and guilt-ridden. But in hindsight, without knowing about Lemon's involvement too, yes, I can see how it would have built up until she felt the whole weight on her own shoulders. I liked the conclusion, the visit to the family grave and reconciliation with her son. It was very cleverly portrayed.

(JJ) Their roles in the tragedy, whilst vital to the story, were less significant than what they believed and the stories they told themselves. The satisfaction comes from changing the patterns of thought, blame and self-regard. When a defining event turns out to be not what you thought, you have to change your own story. You re-define. As the book shows, it sometimes requires a blast from the past to comprehend your role.

Do you think the ending contains some promise of healing and redemption for the two central characters?

(GEH) Lemon - I don't know. From the tending of the grave, he clearly had lived with a lot of remorse. I am not sure he feels he deserves redemption and as we had no hint of where he went to, I'm not sure what his future ends. For Jinx, yes, I think the skeletons of her past have been firmly buried now and she can see a future where she can love and trust and live ... finally.

(JJ) Yes. Both let go of something - guilt, remorse, unfinished business and dealt with the shadow hanging over them. Edwards hints at a stony path ahead and so it should be. Recalibrating a life does not happen in one weekend, which is what Jinx must do. As for Lemon, his visit may have lifted Jinx, but his own trajectory, freed of baggage, is unclear.

The book reminded me of Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan in the way that it peeled back layers of guilt and remorse. What other novels would you compare it with and why?

(GEH) I've had to think about this one ... and the first book that came to mind, maybe because of a similarity in style was The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. Characters who are moulded by family secrets and lies that leave them burdened with guilt that is slowly revealed to the reader. And another book I enjoyed recently that had similar issues of grief and guilt that were slowly revealed was I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh. A twist in the middle turns that book on its head, but we still see the aftermath of an event that completely changed a person's life before we learn about the event and the consequences. A real skill for an author to achieve.

(JJ) Gilly's spot on there with Khaled Hosseini. He explores loyalty and self-preservation perfectly in The Kite Runner. Three books came to my mind, the first being Beloved, by Toni Morrison. Completely different in tone, location and characters, but the spectre of grief as physical struck home. Sophie's Choice, by William Styron, moves from the collective guilt to the personal in one moment which destroys every participant. And A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, by Eimear McBride. Her blend of remorse and regret is as physical, cultural, painful and emotionally agonising.

Friday, 9 December 2016

Revisiting the Triskele Lit Fest 5/5: Preserving the Unicorn

The last session of September's Triskele Lit Fest was the intriguingly-titled "Preserving the Unicorn," a conversation with literary authors and their editors, chaired by Catriona Troth.

Participants Sunny Singh, Alex Pheby and his editor Sam Jordison, and Rohan Quine and his editor Dan Holloway talked about their influences and inspirations, and the process of editing a literary novel.

A discussion that roams from Dante's Inferno to Freudian psychoanalysis, Martin Scorsese to Gustav Klimpt, A Clockwork Orange to Dick van Dyke (in the space of one sentence!), and Derrida to Salman Rushdie.

Watch the full panel here:

Part way through, Alex Pheby throws out a challenge to the audience. "No one ever comes back to me on this," he says. "I dunno," says the chair, "I know some of this lot." On the day, we ran out of time to follow through on this, but audience member, Orna Ross (who had been on the Hist Fic panel earlier in the day) did come back with the series of questions for Alex. We are hoping to persuade him to respond to those questions in Words with Jam in the New Year.

You can watch all the videos from TLF16 on our YouTube Channel.

Rohan Quine is a writer of literary fiction with a touch of magical realism and a dusting of horror, celebrating the beauty, darkness and mirth of this predicament called life, where we seem to have been dropped without sufficient consultation ahead of time.

Publications: The Imagination Thief (novel); The Platinum Raven, The Host in the Attic, Apricot Eyes, and Hallucination in Hong Kong (four novellas); and the upcoming Beasts of Electra Drive, now barrelling down the pipeline.

Rohan's editor, Dan Holloway is a poet, novelist, journalist, editor and performer. Dan loves the writing and research process but comes into his own when given a microphone. He is the rabble rouser in chief of The New Libertines, who have been touring the UK’s festivals and fringes since 2011. In 2010, he won the international spoken prose show Literary Death Match and competed at the 2016 UK National Poetry Slam Final at the Royal Albert Hall.

He also runs the editing and copywriting business Rogue Interrobang, working with academics and non-fiction writers.

Sunny Singh is an author and journalist. She also teaches creative writing at London Metropolitan University.

One unusual aspect to the development of her novel, Hotel Arcadia, was the role of Sunny’s Dutch translator in the editing process.

Sunny was born in India, and has lived in Pakistan, Spain, South Africa, Latin America and the US.

Alex Pheby was born in Essex, but moved to Worcester in his early childhood. He currently lives with his wife and two children in London, where he teaches at the University of Greenwich. Playthings was described as "simply a superb novel" in the Literary Review, "compelling" in the Guardian, glowingly reviewed throughout the UK press, and shortlisted for the 2016 Wellcome Prize.

Alex's Editor, Sam Jordison is a journalist, publisher and writer. He is the co-director of award-winning Galley Beggar Press. He writes for The Guardian and TLS. He is the author of several works of non-fiction, his latest is called Literary London and is co-written with Eloise Millar.

The panel was chaired by Catriona Troth, who is a member of the Triskele Books author collective and the author of two novels, Ghost Town and Gift of the Raven. She writes regularly for Words with Jam magazine, where she has particularly enjoyed interviewing authors like Sunny Singh, Leye Adenle,  Michelle Innis and Myles E Johnson.

Friday, 2 December 2016

Revisiting the Triskele Lit Fest 4/5: Historical Fiction Panel

The fourth of our five panels at the Triskele Lit Fest focused on Historical Fiction.

Our panelists' novels cover a huge spectrum, both geographically and chronologically - from 3rd Century Syria to early 20th Century Ireland, from the Partition of India to the Roman Empire re-imagined in the 1960s.

Here you can watch novelist Jane Davis talk to Orna Ross, Radhika Swarup, JD Smith and Alison Morton.

Next week: Preserving the Unicorn - literary authors and their editors.
And you can listen to our earlier panels (Sci Fi, Crime and Romance) on our YouTube channel.

Orna Ross writes novels, poems and the Go Creative! books and is Director of the Alliance of Independent Authors.

After the Rising and Before the Fall are the first two of a trilogy of novels set in Ireland during the early 20th Century.

Her Secret Rose is the first of her trilogy about the poet WB Yeats.

Alison Morton writes Roman-themed alternative history thrillers with strong heroines. Three of the series, Successio, Aurelia and Insurrectio, have been selected as Historical Novel Society’s Indie Editor’s Choices. Aurelia was a finalist for the prestigious HNS Indie Award for 2016. The first four books have been awarded the BRAG Medallion.

A ‘Roman nut’ since age 11, Alison has misspent decades of holidays clambering over Roman sites throughout Europe. She holds a MA History, blogs about Romans and administers the HNS Facebook group.

Jane is the author of the HNS Indie Award 2016 finalist Tristan and Iseult and The Overlord series, comprising The Rise of Zenobia, The Fate of an Emperor and The Better of Two Men. The Rebel Queen is due out in early 2017

She is a member of the Triskele Books collective, editor of the writers' ezine Words with JAM, and the readers' review site Bookmuse.

She is also an award-winning book cover designer.

And she loves cake. Just in case you were wondering.

Radhika Swarup spent a nomadic childhood in India, Italy, Qatar, Pakistan, Romania and England, which gave her a keen sense for the dispossessed. She read Economics at Cambridge, following which she worked in investment banking before turning to writing. 

She has written opinion pieces for Indian broadsheets and the Huffington Post as well as short stories for publications including the Edinburgh Review.
Where the River Parts is her first novel.

The Historical Fiction panel was chaired by author, Jane Davis. Jane is the author of six novels, including the historical novel, I Stopped Time. Her writing has been compared with Kate Atkinson and Maggie O'Farrell.