I'd like to think I'd been astonishingly perceptive in having books by six out of ten of the Waterstone's New Voices 2009 either read or waiting on my shelves. Then you'd all be in awe of my talent-spotting skills and think blimey, she's good at this no wonder she's got a shelf of her own in that shop.
Forget it, the books are only there because the publishers have sent them to me.
That aside, plenty of books don't make the fifty page cut so at least when the list was published I'd already read several and nodded sagely in agreement, coming to the same conclusion, that several of these writers had real promise which possibly bodes well for the others and I for one would be watching out for next novels from them.
You already know about Guernica by Dave Boling and coming up soon my thoughts on Days of Grace by Catherine Hall and The Earth Hums in B Flat by Marie Strachan but today it is the turn of a very remarkable book, Black Rock by Amanda Smyth published by Serpent's Tail.
The cover has something Heart of Darkness-y about it but that might all be about the boat and the river steering my thoughts erroneously along that route when in fact as soon as I read I sensed a gloriously different cocktail, the combined spirits of women both real and fictional.
Think Jean Rhys and Wide Sargasso Sea, a bit of Bertha Mason, a smidgen of Kate Chopin's Edna Pontellier from The Awakening , the tiniest essence of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper with a hint of The Colour Purple and Alice Walker, throw in a pinch of Toni Morrison all of which hopefully gives you an idea of the flavour of Black Rock which is in the end, lest there be any doubt not in the least derivative and very uniquely Amanda Smyth.
Until disturbing events cause her to flee, Black Rock on the island of Tobago has been Celia's home. Orphaned at birth and raised by her Aunt Tassie, Celia heads to nearby Trinidad to escape the attentions of Tassie's lecherous husband Roman. Rapidly absorbed into first the Shamiel family and son William whose faithful and oft unrequited love for Celia pervades the book, and then employed by Dr Emmanuel Rodriguez to help his beleagured wife Helen care for the children, slowly a new and different life unfolds for Celia as she comes of age and deals with what love and life throw at her and perhaps with these words of wisdom ringing in her ears,
'I believe you follow your life, Celia. You don't lead your life. It's a mistake people make. We're not that powerful or important.'
Early grief and loss suddenly overflows in one of the many incredibly telling moments in this beautifully written book, Celia's first person narrative voice by now one that I was completely in tune with,
'...I looked up through the branches of the trees to the sky and it was black and empty as if there was nothing there. There were no stars and no planets and no piece of moon. Everything was still as if it was a picture I was looking at. And for the first time since I had left Black Rock, I started to cry...At last the river that ran to and from my heart had burst its banks.'
Meanwhile Amanda Smyth utilises her geographical location to full effect as Trinidad drips with heat, freqently with ritual and an underlying sense of menace whilst something altogether unknown, intangible, possibly 'unsayable' hovers in the air.
Thank goodness Amanda Smyth reveals all in the twist at the end, and though I'd pinned down one or two fleeting suspicions I did not spot the 'biggy' coming one little bit, so much so that I had to re-read the page and was quite overcome with that sense of 'how on earth did I miss that'.
I don't often mention endings for fear of giving a single thing away but I've thought carefully and I don't think it's too revealing to say that as you turn the final page you have that overwhelming sense that history can and does repeat itself but that Celia may well be on the brink of bucking those proffered words of wisdom and leading her life as she sees fit, not following the trail that others lay for her and a great tidal wave of hope rushed in.
I just love it when a book does that to me and, if you too could use a great tidal wave of reading hope right now, Serpent's Tail have three prize draw copies of Black Rock (for the UK only this time) ready and waiting to send out to the lucky winners, names in comments and Rocky will oblige.