Written by MP Wright — There is a deep irony from the outset in the setting of this book. We are in the wintry and snow covered English city of Bristol. It is 1964. Two centuries earlier, Bristol was one of the main European ports exporting African slaves to the Caribbean. Now, Bristol has a growing population of immigrants – from the Caribbean – looking for work, particularly in its tobacco factories. Former Barbados policeman Joseph Tremaine (JT) Ellington is one such. He has been fired from his factory job, is down to his last handful of small change, and as the snow in the streets thickens, he is on the verge of being kicked out of his rented room because of rent arrears.
As JT is sitting in a dingy pub, looking at life through the bottom of an empty glass, he is approached a fellow immigrant. But this particular countryman has done rather well for himself. Not only has he made money from supplying Bristol’s burgeoning aerospace industry with parts, he is a elected member of the city council. He wants to trace a missing girl – a deaf mute – who has come to live under his wing. Deeply suspicious, JT is faced with destitution, or a brown envelope full of five pound notes. He makes the choice that anyone sane man would. He takes the brown envelope. He takes the job. His search for the elusive Stella Hopkins takes him to places he has only previously seen in his nightmares. He battles police corruption, racial prejudice on a scale that would be unthinkable today, and – above all – the burden of his own tragic past.
Ellington is a thoroughly convincing central character. He is as honest as he can be, given the hard life he has chosen for himself and the company he is forced to keep. I wasn’t entirely surprised to read, in Wright’s afterword, that he is a great fan of Walter Mosley. Ellington may not be Easy Rawlings, but he has a touch of ER’s courage, and stoic dignity in the teeth of adversity. My main criticism is of the dialogue. I have absolutely no idea of what kind of dialect and patois would be authentic when one recent Bajan immigrant is speaking to another in mid-1960s England. I would hope that a writer would trust the reader to supply the appropriate voice in his or her own head. Instead, we get dialogue liberally seeded with ‘honky’,’fo’, ’bout’ and the ubiquitous ‘mutha******’. Maybe Wright has this spot on, but more than once it had me thinking of the jive talkin’ scene in Airplane where the lingo is translated by a sweet, grey-haired old lady.
Though the dialogue is laid on a bit thick, this is an assured and confident debut. The England of 1964 is well captured. Ellington’s deep antipathy with the wintry snow and slush, and his losing battle to remain warm and dry in his meagre bedsit adds a literal chill to the proceedings. Perhaps we didn’t need quite so many references to various pop hits of the day playing on radios and jukeboxes, because Wright does a pretty good job of evoking the period without using such obvious markers. There is clearly much more for us to learn about Ellington’s past – and his future. I look forward to meeting him again soon.
Black and White Publishing
CFL Rating: 4 Stars