Book review: What the River Washed Away by Muriel Mharie Macleod

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IT IS part of the American South’s dark history that long after the First World War had ended in Europe, lynching was still legal.

What the River Washed Away

By Muriel Mharie Macleod

Oneworld, 274pp, £11.99

The grimly predictable fact is that most of those lynched were African-Americans. But not all of them were – and it is in this little-explored corner of American civil rights history that Muriel Macleod’s debut takes root.

Arletta is only eight years old, and living with her mother, Mambo, in the cabin built by her recently deceased, beloved grandfather. Mambo is a wild, party animal and rarely at home, leaving the young Arletta to fend for herself.

But loneliness does not seem to bother the young girl, whose only wish is to be allowed to go to school and to learn; to rid herself of the weight of expectation that she will simply become the next in a long line of mambos – female high priests, originally from Haiti, well-known and respected in black Louisiana for their expertise with herbs. Arletta has a different “gut’” and even her own mother can sees this. Voodooism – a lynching offence at the time – would not be her vocation.

Despite Arletta’s independence, there is one very urgent reason that she needs her mother to be at home. A white man has started to visit the cabin, and now he is bringing a friend. Mr Seymour is even worse than Mr McIntyre; a filthy, foul-smelling, overweight drunk who refers to Arletta as Fifty Cents, a sick nod towards the “reward” she receives each time he visits.

She tries to tell her wayward mother what is happening, but is castigated as a fanciful child who reads too many newspapers and will get herself and her family lynched if she goes on telling stories about white folks.

Arletta is alone, with only the waters of Sugarsookie Creek, which has washed away the blood of so many of her forefathers, to comfort her after the white men have gone. But from somewhere comes the strength she needs: initially, to protect herself; and later, when she discovers that another young girl has suffered at the hands of Mr Seymour, to ensure it ends there.

At the heart of this assured and thoroughly compelling first novel are the appalling realities of life for blacks in the American South at the time, and the legacy of lynching that acts as a constant threat. But Macleod does not draw simple moral distinctions that would have been so easy to fall into while telling a tale of such raw emotional power.

Instead, there is good and bad in all of her characters: Arletta’s best friend Safi is betrayed by the man we least suspect; Mambo’s new man is not, in fact, the disastrous choice her daughter first fears; Mrs Archer-Laing, whom Arletta boards with after leaving home, happens to be white, but is a true Christian, regardless of race and creed; and the voodooism that Arletta’s mother practises, which she views with such disdain and suspicion, is not necessarily the evil she considered it to be. Everywhere in this novel there is deftly weaved light and shade, and therein lies its beauty.

Central too is a mother and daughter relationship that seems doomed to fail, such is the chasm between them; the impulsive, impassioned parent and bookish child so desperate to disentangle herself from the mambo heritage. But both are young to be shouldering the burdens they must individually bear, and watching their bond gradually heal, grow and eventually blossom is deeply affecting.

It becomes about more than being mother and daughter: instead they are simply two grown women, supporting each other and refusing to blindly accept the hand they have been dealt. And together they will eventually avenge the sins of years gone by.

Born in the Outer Hebrides, Muriel Macleod spent many years in the Caribbean, and this experience of other cultures shows not only in her impressive characterisation, but also in her seemingly effortless grasp of accent and dialect, which allows the writing to flow so beautifully.

And she is clearly a woman of many talents. A distinguished artist and animation film producer, she even worked on The Snowman back in the 1960s, before going on to illustrate articles for the Times Literary Supplement, amongst others.

However, on the literary scene, Muriel Macleod is a very new name. If there is any justice, that will not be the case for long.