Memorial by Bryan Washington
Actually, I couldn’t decide how to take it. Excited initially by the originality of the voice, I found it enervating by the end. While it was good to meet my first Japanese-African-American gay couple, either on or off the page, as well as a 21st-century character living with HIV, it didn’t take me far enough beyond the clever setup. Although readers with more patience for rehabilitating inadequate parents might find it uplifting.
Fortunately the author won’t care what I think since he’s already sold the film rights for his debut novel, first published in the US last year. Thanks to UK publishers, Atlantic books, for my review copy.
The Prophets by Robert Jones Jr
Having set to them to work in the barn with the animals, the Massa, Paul, has identified them as breeding stock. They’re strong and, despite the appalling conditions, willing workers, until dispatched to the Fucking Shed. They don’t have a word for the way they enjoy each other’s bodies, but they sense they’ll lose something if they succumb to something similar with a girl.
For a while, their closeness is tolerated by the other enslaved people, even approved of by those who remember the old ways. The story develops through multiple perspectives and viewpoints: one of which showcases Kosongo culture, where gender is fluid and love is celebrated in all its hues. But paradise is under threat: first from warring tribes and then Europeans resembling skinless ghosts.
As Christianity comes to Empty, touted by Amos, who takes to preaching to protect his partner from being raped again by Paul, the boys’ relationship is deemed immoral. But it’s less the sex that disturbs both slavers and enslaved alike, than the love. In a place where mothers daren’t love their children for fear they won’t survive the pain of separation, or because they remind them of rape, a cold heart is safest. In a business that relies on forced labour, the owners would go mad – as, indeed, does Paul’s wife, Ruth – if they recognised their workforce as human, just like them.
The author is more generous with his characters, extending humanity to the villains as well as victims, so that the contemporary reader can understand Paul and his family, even if we can’t condone them. This layering of conflicting wounds and motivations gives the novel a richness, and a strong foundation in reality alongside touches of magic realism, which I personally don’t relish.
The story of the transatlantic slave trade requires constant retelling from different angles to stop it going stale. By focusing on the love between two adolescent boys, Robert Jones Jr helps keep the narrative alive. This is the best novel I’ve read so far this year; thanks to riverrun for my review copy.
With my own event for LGBT history month looming, I wondered about these authors’ experiences of launching their novels in lockdown. Going online can extend the audience, but calculating quantities of wine and nibbles is replaced by time-zone stress. Our event straddles the days of the week as well as breakfast versus dinner, but I thought we’d nailed it until I caught a tweet – thanks, nevertheless, Dorset libraries – aimed at early risers in the UK. The correct day and times are in the image, and the registration details you get if you sign up.
So my response to the latest flash fiction challenge right time, right place is in that territory. But I managed to shift the focus slightly from my own pre-performance nerves to count my blessings I’m not preparing while home-schooling. I’m not the Texas lawyer stuck in a cat filter. When times are tough, there’s always something worse.
The kids needed the laptop for their schoolwork. I needed it to practice addressing the camera instead of the screen. I’d neglected them, constantly checking the joining link and time zones. Learning my lines. But they were good kids, they’d forgive me. They'd have my attention once the book was launched.
“Good evening, and welcome!” On Zoom, no-one would see me wipe my sweaty palms on my jeans. Gaze fixed on the camera, I didn’t immediately notice the kids had taken revenge. Rubbish at tech, I couldn’t cancel the filter. I read out my poignant passages as a cat.