By Lynn Michel
By Hema Macherle
Under an Emerald Sky
By Olukemi Amala
All Linen Press, 318pp, 434pp and 393pp respectively, 11.99
HAVING read these novels – by new Edinburgh publisher Linen Press – twice, it is their striking chorus of voices, the ripple and sparkle of human cacophony, that insists on leaving its sound print. Each deals with history and legacy, each is susceptible to the vagaries of love, and the human drive towards self- realisation.
Britain's chequered colonial past has a role in all three — a presiding, instigating presence bestriding Blue Eyes, set in India in the early 20th century, and a potent off-stage player throughout White Lies, which delves into British-occupied Kenya during the outbreak of Mau Mau insurgency of the 1950s. Only in Under an Emerald Sky is post-colonialism (relating here to Nigeria, and filtered through the lives of immigrant families settled in England) shown in its multiple effects. Taken together, these three books make a powerful statement about the taints and scars and delights which human societies leave on each others' sensibilities, and the benefits they imbue. The novels ring with distinctive noises — the thwack of a cricket ball on willow, the rattle of wind through foreign trees — and each has its own powerful narrative voices.
The least ambitious, and superficially most straightforward voice of all, is that found in Blue Eyes, dramatically pitched and packed with incident from the start when its teenage heroine, Anjali, is held in captivity to be burned on her husband's funeral pyre. She escapes with the help of Saleem, a childhood friend from a lower caste. His promise to steer her to security far away yields to his weakness for the excitement of the moment, in this case political insurrection in the making. He misses their rendezvous and they lose each other for more than 200 pages, each meeting hazards, risks and setbacks, each tasting fortune in their encounters with Mr Robert, an enlightened English settler, sympathetic not just to India, but perceptive of the downcast role of its women.
The tale is linear, episodic, enlisting Gandhi's campaign for Indian independence to stir its soundtrack of dissident voices and contrary feelings. Many Indians turn to violence, leaving Saleem, who respects Mr Robert, in deep confusion. Mr Robert (shining bright and two-dimensional) shelters a much discontented wife. Saleem, the novel's minor hero, pines for Anjali who calls him her "brother". Readers who find it all superficial, rather simplistically romantic, in the style of 1950s women's magazine short stories, may miss its faithfulness to the genre of traditional Indian storytelling. As such, its clear-cut morality and straight-talking sense of innocence manage to pinpoint and examine such issues as caste and religious differences and the liberation of women from their role as traditional chattels, fit only to live and die in the shadows of male domination.
The heart-warming final scenes of Blue Eyes contrast with the rancour and lively jealousy piercing the colourful sibling rivalry in Under an Emerald Sky. Yewande, the younger, gets under the skin of her older, less intelligent sister straight from birth, as they grow to maturity under the gaze of their wise, loving mother whose Christian beliefs are infused with the spirit gods of her family's Nigerian past. Yewande is touched with the gift of entry into that spirit world, a fearful, wondrous blessing which, as she grows, is to cause her grief, revealing the secrets of a killing.
Meanwhile, Olukemi Amala, whose prose at its finest creates delightful thickets of sensory description, cleverly parallels Yewande's journey to adulthood with the bleaker life of Mary, born the same night, who lives close by. Mary suffers rejection and abuse, deprived of her roots, while Yewande soars through university, enjoying a vibrant love affair with Ade, a musician, and deep friendship with like-minded Bisi, a bubbly lesbian.
Driven by breadth and depth of character (but beset, alas, by the author's awful ear when it comes to similes), this is a novel good-hearted and honest, full of the sense of the importance of living life fully, spurred by connectedness and love.
A sense of connectedness – not necessarily one of belonging – runs through White Lies, the most complete and achieved of these books, a debut novel which possesses and is possessed by a rare authority of voice. Its span of seven decades brings to vivid, unerring life provincial England in the 1930s and 40s, and also contemporary Scotland, supplying between these patches of life, a deeply moving portrayal of Kenya, with its injustices, and the meeting and clashing of cultures during the final throes of British occupation in the 1950s.
A sense of duty – to family and country – the stiff upper lip, the stiffened back, hidden thoughts and long-buried memories and desires, lie at its heart. And that heart is wounded; it beats with longing, guilt and joy. Eve and Clara are its sisterhood in duty – their chore is to care for their father, David, who fought the Mau Mau, and who, nearing dotage, at last is vouchsafing to Eve his memories of the bloody colonial endgame.
Into that narrative fizzles a bombshell – the voice of their mother, David's dead wife. In discovered journals, she has written of her own secret life, one lived wonderfully and wantonly, her love affair twisting its knife in the heart of staid colonial values.
It is the mother's voice that sings White Lies into unforgettability. Hers and Eve's. Their thoughts and writing ring like music. Contrastingly, David's recollections, despite his best efforts at decent prose, are processional snapshots, overlapping his wife, Mary's, ground (they shared in friendships, the same ordeals). David's account is terse and self-censored.
Lynn Michell writes the differences beautifully and convincingly. She structures her novel astutely, laying a lure at the very outset with which she brings it all to a sudden, seismic, utterly moving conclusion, without the reader becoming distracted along the way. And then the narrative voice snaps shut. The story is over. You shudder with shock – and turn back to the start. It is a minor tour de force.