I love the title of Niven Govinden’s third novel, Black Bread White Beer, partly for its ambiguity – it’s never explained or even really illustrated during the book, though do I hear an echo in it of David Bowie’s mid-90s album Black Tie White Noise? True, there is a soggy, inedible café sandwich that plays its part in the plot, and a few half pints of beer in the pub at the end, but their colour are left unspecified.
The black bread, we might assume, is the super-healthy granary of rural Sussex, where Amal and Claud head one Friday, from their Richmond home, to visit Claud’s parents – supposedly to celebrate Claud’s still new pregnancy, though Claud, who has just miscarried, is not ready to let them know the bad news
The white beer, perhaps, is the pale ale you would drink while listening to the England-India test match that’s playing on the radio, that feeds into Amal’s more-or-less stable sense of British-Asian heritage. He wants England to win (“England is his team, is all”) but still feels pride for the way the Indian bowlers are demolishing the English batting order, and enjoys thinking how this will annoy his Little Englander father-in-law, Sam.
It’s a short novel – available in the UK as an eBook from The Friday Project, in India as a paperback – that follows its two characters over this single, painful day, as they try to work through the first stages of loss and grief, suddenly aware of the damage it might do to their marriage. Is the miscarriage just an accident, that they can bounce back from, or a warning, transmitted via their “sluggish eggs and weak sperm” that they’re fundamentally mismatched?
The story is told from Amal’s point of view, and through him we get the full, suddenly anguished story of his and Claud’s relationship, how the first joyful years can fade under the demands of routine, and the expectation of parenthood – sex is no longer a privilege to be grabbed at every odd moment, swinging from the antlers of a stag’s head hung on a hotel wall, but performed to order, as dictated by calendar and thermometer.
There is plenty of bitterness here, but much delicacy, too. There is a wonderful section when Amal (a convert to Christianity before his marriage) escapes the local village fête to find a few moments’ peace in the church. “Many times he has sat in the twelfth pew […] open-mouthed, like stone, willing the one who died for our sins to absorb his petty frustrations: a sore cock and balls from Claud’s shagging schedule; wanting to spend his weekends anywhere else other than a village tucked into the hills.” It’s that mixture of the knowingly profane and the subtly humane that runs right through this book, all the way to its gentle, hopeful conclusion.