‘People write because they’ve got an urge to express themselves… Because they’ve seen something they can’t comprehend and they’re trying to work it out through the act of writing. They write because they want to make sense of their pain’.
In The Gospel According to Cane, Beverley, a creative writing teacher in West London, addresses these words to her beloved, unruly students at the after-school club where she volunteers, but they also serve to explain what motivates her to write her journal, the novel we are reading. Her narrative is the story of pain: after the kidnapping of her baby son, Malakay, Beverley’s marriage and affluent lifestyle collapse around her, leaving her to a life of isolated contemplation. Her narrative records a pain which is not only personal but historical: Beverley’s story is shot through with dream sequences which link her mixed race identity and middle-class status to the sugar cane plantations in Barbados and a complex inheritance of guilt and victimhood.
When a young man claiming to be Beverley’s son begins to follow her about, the scene is set for a complex drama in which Beverley must decide whether to open her home and her heart to this stranger at her gate or stay barricaded away in her lonely flat. Newland delivers a master class in the psychological thriller in his depiction of Wills, Beverley’s changeling son, who is by turns vulnerable and loving then the next unknowable, even violent.
The novel’s depiction of Wills and the young people of the after-school club are acutely observed in the way only Newland knows how—profoundly humane and minutely observed, their speech and mannerisms crackle with life. Newland makes great use of Beverley’s slightly dislocated and teacherly perspective on the young people while still allowing them to speak for themselves. The arrival of Wills threatens to close the protective distance which Beverley keeps from the young people who she loves but occasionally fears (‘Knives and guns are commonplace, and there are even local stories of people being shot for asking the young not to smoke in a public space’). In putting aside her fears and embracing her possible son, Beverley also risks alienating the few lifelines she has—her neighbour, her therapist, her sometimes lover and her ‘kids’.
Missing children have been turning up, so to speak, in a number of contemporary novels in recent years like Hari Kunzru’s God’s Without Men and Philip Hensher’s King of the Badgers. While high-profile stories of kidnapping are an obvious touchstone, the missing child also seems to stand in as a cipher for other kinds of trauma and dislocation, the child his or herself representing a reproach to society but remaining in themselves ultimately unknowable. Courttia Newland’s London, already familiar to readers of his detective novel Snakeskin, is a city characterised by vast inequality where violence is always threatening to burst through the crust of everyday life. In this novel, he seems to depict a specifically post-riots London by looking particularly at the brooding presence of a generation of young, underprivileged and angry people, a group he refuses to either demonise or sentimentalize, but who, like Malakay, refuse to be forgotten.
This is an important, as well as an absorbing, novel which makes the absence of Newland from the most recent Granta’s Best Young British Novelists list all the more glaring. The Gospel According to Cane is a well-crafted and subtle psychological thriller which continues to act upon the mind long after its closing page.