This magical fable set firstly in Jamaica imagines the life of a baby Moshe found, almost biblically amongst the reeds, and brought up by loving parents Rachel and Noah. The child is half white, half black, with skin that peels especially in the sun and an allergic reaction to eating sugar. These things link his existence to the turmoil of Jamaicans when their country was colonised by the British and both the slave trade in sugar and the exploitation and fathering of children by white colonialists.
This may seem topical now but the novel was published early this year before the Black Lives Matter protests began, so when Moshe travels to Bristol, in search of his father, it seems inevitable that whilst walking the streets of that port, so paved with slavery, that he should stand by the statue of Edward Colston – and for us to rejoice in the bringing down of that statue in light of the suffering it brought upon Jamaicans amongst many others.
However, the main overriding context of this book is a wonderful love story between Moshe and Arrienne who is also strange, both in her height and her nature with other children. They are both exceptionally gifted and find comfort in each other. This thread also explores the context of teenage years in Jamaica as it moved from independence in the 1960s.
The language is often based in traditional dialect and I did struggle to follow parts of the book between the main characters when this was the dialogue. However, it is definitely worth persevering, as lyrically it doesn’t mean a loss of the emotion between Moshe and those around him..
When the scenes move to England we are struck by how Moshe moves often easily amongst those in London moving towards a more accepting multicultural world. He becomes a famous artist as if he wants to brighten with his paintings the bland surroundings of a country that was not the place paved with gold. But he was there nonetheless: “…come like Columbus to this dark place that savage to them and they mark with their presence…”
Moshe becomes the reverse of prejudices as he crosses the sea whilst Arrienne stays back at home, turning from a bolshy political activist into a soft mother crying for her missed love whilst he explores his own growing sexual appeal across all those he meets. I also loved Moshe’s adopted parents Rachel and Noah and the portrayed influence of mothers in Jamaica. Also the role of education, from those strict and abusive British church classrooms to the burgeoning desire of students to explore their past beyond slavery set against wonderful landscape, food and music.
As a personal read I could only take short periods of time with the text. I then wanted to focus and enjoy the parts of description and understand the meaning of the myth and magic being portrayed by the author. Yes, the dialogue is tricky, and I think book groups will struggle with reading it. Perhaps it might be better as an audiobook if available? I would also have liked a map of Jamaica to follow the two young people exploring for themselves the island on which they live. I was reading the book whilst watching the Small Axe series of documentaries by Steve McQueen and the parallels were brought to life on the screen very well of young people in London as portrayed in the novel.
But time spent with Moshe was a revelation. Of how being so different can ironically lower the fear and prejudice we so often see thrown in abuse at so many around us today.
Review by Philipa Coughlan
Personal read 3
Group read 2
Hardback ISBN 978-1-7868-9857-9 Published Feb 2020 by Canongate Books Ltd