Two debut novels: Brown Girls, & Black Cake

Review by Liz Dexter

I’d like to introduce you to two astoundingly accomplished debut novels, so well done that you would not think they were first novels; two voices we’d all do well to look out for in the future as well as pouncing on these reads.

Brown Girls by Daphne Palasi Andreades

We have been admonished to Study hard! yet have also been told Don’t go far, stay close, stay near, aren’t we good enough for you? We long for more, but keep our dreams to ourselves.

This astonishing novel is completely in the first person plural: that’s “we do this, we do that”. How on earth the author sustained this through a whole novel is beyond me, a work of technical skill.

Who are the “Brown girls” of the title? They’re a loose friendship group in Queens, New York starting aged ten around, presumably the turn of the millennium (their mothers are described as having come there in the 1990s) and then presumably stretching into the future, although this is not explicitly described (which I liked: it’s just about experiences and emotions, different ways of communicating, but not tech and innovations as successful). Where are their families from? Well, when they go to their “motherlands or fatherlands” part-way through the book, they

purchase flights to capital cities: Dhaka, Port-au-Prince, Malia, Kingston and Santo Domingo. In a week, we will fly to Mexico City, Islamabad, Accra, Caracas, Seoul, Damascus, Bogota. Soon, with our own eyes, we will see San Juan, Cairo, Tehran, Beijing, Panama City, Georgetown, New Delhi, and many more places.

So their families are across the world; they’re all women of colour and have that in common and certain experiences and micro (or macro) aggressions; their differences are carefully delineated, too (again, using technical expertise that doesn’t show the workings) as their experiences and lives divide off. Some of them experience racist or gender violence; they share tales as they still go out into the world, determined not to become trapped like their mothers, getting trapped like their mothers.  It’s raw, often funny, painful and compulsive. Although Andreades has been on writing courses, her work doesn’t read like an exercise, a particular bugbear of mine. Yes, it reads a bit like autofiction, but so many different lives, cultures and experiences are described, it’s not just that. It’s fresh, exciting and moving, and I cannot wait to see what she does next.

Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson

If you were born to Bert and Eleanor, you banked on your university degrees, you built your influence, you accumulated wealth, you quashed all vulnerability. In short, you became Byron Bennett.

Byron and Benny Bennett have the same problem as the Brown Girls: be perfect, don’t step out of line, don’t disappoint anyone. But they’ve been estranged for eight years, only reunited when their mother dies and leaves them a recorded announcement and some of her famous black cake to eat when the time is right.

For their mum, the recipe for black cake was the only thing she took with her from her original life. We follow the story of several characters from a 1960s Caribbean island, loosely based on Jamaica, to the UK and the US, and at first we’re as confused as Benny and Byron as we all learn about people they’ve never heard of before. Who are these people and how are they connected with their parents? Did their parents have lives before them? Gradually events unfold and unfurl, hopping backwards and forwards through the timeline, but in a self-assured manner that works out fine, and touching on gender violence, mores in various countries, colourism, micro-aggressions, climate change and pollution, and privilege – but never in a heavy or preachy way.

In the author’s Afterword she says that she treated the story more like a folk story or fairy tale, and gives an excellent reading list for exploring matters further, though I felt it had a lot of emotional realism, too. A great story which is complex but understandable and some memorable characters and scenes – I can’t believe it’s a debut as it’s so well-done and self-assured, and it’s highly recommended.

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Liz Dexter blogs about reading, running and working from home at http://www.librofulltime.wordpress.com

Daphne Palasi Andreades, Brown Girls (Fourth Estate, 2022). ‎ 978-0008478063, 224pp., hardback.

Charmaine Wilkerson, Black Cake (Michael Joseph, 2022). 978-0241529928, 400pp., hardback.

BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link: Brown Girls, Black Cake.

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