A Tall History of Sugar by Curdella Forbes
The friendship deepens, as Moshe retreats into silence, his sketchbook continually at his side. But, as puberty looms, Arrienne becomes intensely jealous of those who might come between them, such as Alva, a gay boy who takes a particular interest in Moshe. What happens to a friendship forged in early childhood when those friends become sexual beings?
At eighteen, Moshe stows away on a ship to England in the hope of finding his biological father while studying at art school. Of course, mid 1970s England is not what he expected: for one thing, the English don’t wash. Of greater concern, is the racism he encounters and other people’s confusion about how to place him: is he black, white, mixed race or something entirely different?
The young man’s identity is based on more than genetics and skin tone: that’s the legacy of sugar that has enslaved his ancestors and enriched the small island where he’s come to live. This manifests itself in an allergy to the substance: “Sugar’s by-blow a hex against sugar” (p170). He also suffers from “blood sweat”, “Hematidrosis. A disease of nearly ghosts” (p210), a perfect symbol of the ravages of colonialism.
With such arresting themes, I wanted to like this novel more, but I’m afraid I limped through it, snagged on a morass of detail, unclear where the author was leading me and whether I wanted to go. I still don’t know whether I took from it what’s the author intended, but it did furnish me with another fictional toilet to add to my collection, and we English can never have too many reminders of the barbaric origins of our prosperity, although I found the Brexit references somewhat clunky. Thanks to publishers Canongate for my review copy.
Tender Is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica translated by Sarah Moses
Years before, animals became infected with a virus that rendered their meat poisonous. To replace them, humans have been bred for consumption in a legalised form of cannibalism, their vocal cords cut so their screams can’t be heard. Jasmine is one of the finest specimens from this breeding programme.
I found this quirky novel more entertaining than disturbing, but it might read differently for those who eat meat. (And Argentinians consume a lot of meat.) About three quarters of the book is taken up with world building, but this is never tedious as the parallels with our contemporary treatment of sentient beings reared for food, science or entertainment are cleverly crafted. (As well as specific detail on the mechanics of production and processing, we also follow Marcus to a research laboratory and to a game reserve where hunters collect trophy heads and dine on the creatures they’ve killed.)
It’s not until halfway through that Marcus transgresses with Jasmine and the tension cranks up. I was surprised, and initially disappointed, at the ending but, on reflection, felt it was a brave conclusion and a perfect fit. With themes of animal welfare, our collective disregard for humans deemed different to us, alongside the dehumanising culture of some types of work, it’s nevertheless not a heavy read. Thanks to Pushkin Press for my review copy.
“What you need is a dog. A big brown dog with floppy ears and waggy tail.”
He was right I needed something. But I hated dogs as much as I hated people telling me what to do.
Even so, I heeded his advice, a sour taste in my mouth as I scrolled through canines online. Without luck: I’d find the eyes I wanted paired with the wrong kind of nose.
“Is that one of those crossbreeds?” they asked at the exhibition. “A labradoodle or somesuch?” I smiled, didn’t admit my dog among the daisies drew breath solely on canvas.