The Edinburgh-based writer, storyteller and theatre-maker Mara Menzies has both Kenyan and Scottish heritage, and much of her work over the last decade or-so has explored the legacy of colonialism and slavery. Her 2013 two-hander I knew A Man Called Livingstone considered the explorer and missionary from the perspective of his two African servants; Nzinga (2014) focused on the titular Angolan warrior queen and her struggle against the Portuguese; and in 2019's Blood and Gold, she took in the whole troubled sweep of Africa and Europe's shared history through a dream-like sequence of myths and legends.
It is this latest show which forms the basis of her new novel. At the centre of the story is Jeda, a young girl living in Scotland whose African mother Rahami dies of cancer when she is just eight, leaving her to be brought up by her Scottish father, Chris. Before she dies, Jeda's mother takes a small wooden box, fills it with "myths, legends, histories, memories, ideas, languages, folk tales" and then gives it to her daughter with the words "There will come a time when you will need this."
Sure enough, as she becomes a teenager Jeda reaches a point when – bullied at school and easy prey to the "Shadowman" of self-doubt her mother warned her about – she has need of the stories in the box. The Shadowman does his best to prevent her from opening it, but fate – in the shape of Jeda's no-nonsense Aunty – intervenes, the box is opened, and Jeda is plunged into a series of colourful imaginary worlds.
This Arabian Nights-style framing device allows Menzies to stitch together a richly varied tapestry of tales, touching on the many layers of history and culture that are part of Jeda's legacy, while never losing sight of Jeda as the emotional heart of the narrative. These range from the story of a great chief who welcomes visitors from a faraway land into his village but then struggles to know how to react when they start taking over, to the heartbreaking account of a bright young boy whose parents gather together much of the wealth of their village to enable him to travel to fabled the Land in the Sky, only for all his brilliance and potential to be extinguished by the violence and hate he encounters there.
Menzies' great achievement here is to tap into the subtle power of allegory to make us consider familiar subjects with fresh eyes. In the stories in Jeda's box, none of the characters are black or white or from a specific place on the map. Menzies simply invites us to consider the universal concepts of justice and injustice, greed and selflessness; and if we then find parallels in the real world, well, that's up to us.
Blood and Gold, by Mara Menzies, Birlinn, £12.99
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