As regular visitors to this blog will know, I am a huge fan of the Fiction Uncovered prize. Any initiative that promotes books I am likely to get behind, what I particularly love about Fiction Uncovered though is that it aims to promote marvellous books by British authors that for some unknown reason haven’t had the coverage or exposure that they should. Oh and if that wasn’t enough, so far, I have yet to meet a Fiction Uncovered title I haven’t liked. Niven Govinden’s ‘Black Bread White Beer’ (which has also been longlisted for The Green Carnation Prize, though I didn’t know this at the time of reading it) was one of the titles I had been meaning to read for a while and so popped straight on the bedside table.
‘Black Bread White Beer’ is a novel set within a single day. As it opens Amal, our protagonist and our eyes and opinions, is sat in a park contemplating nothing and everything all at once. His wife Claud is in hospital after having a miscarriage and Amal is feeling at a loss with the world and with his marriage. Terrible personal events change the way we think and our perspective on life and it is this situation Amal and Claud find themselves in as they try and cope with what has happened and each other’s reactions, both visual and hidden, to it.
What I most admired about ‘Black Beer White Bread’ was Govinden’s ability to encapsulate so much into a relatively short novel, and so deftly and beautifully. Throughout the novel Amal and Claud’s marriage is revealed and we are often reminded that we don’t always like the people that we love all the time and that we don’t always marry the people that we think we have. Marriage can change you (take it from one who knows) and the other person and despite all those fairytales we are told they don’t always mean a happy ever after. Ladybird Books and Disney forget to remind people of the everyday minutiae that follow any honeymoon period, Govinden doesn’t. What happens when the sex wears off or becomes a perfunctory act? What follows then?
Govinden wonderfully, and heartbreakingly, also looks at the fact that no matter how well we know a person we never really know what they are thinking and never can. As Amal arrives to discover that Claud is waiting in the reception having discharged herself he is both furious at himself, for not having been there earlier ready to protect her, and also at Claud for having done so and therefore excluding him from hearing what the doctors said as if Amal himself doesn’t matter. The couple are not only undergoing a time of great tension, they are at odds with each other – and then Claud announces they are going to see her mother and father, who they mustn’t tell. The word ‘awkward’ doesn’t begin to cover the car journey there or what unravels on their arrival.
As if not content at all that fodder ‘Black Bread White Beer’ also looks at other themes. As we meet Claud’s parents, and indeed on the way as we get flashbacks throughout the couple’s relationship, divides between Amal and Claud’s backgrounds. Class; Claud’s family being rather well to do middle and Amal’s working class backgrounds, religion; Amal’s conversation – to the horror of his family – to Claud’s lax Catholicism, race; involving an incident in a tea shop and lifestyle; the divide between urban and countryside, are all looked at. It is also the first book I have read that deals with the pressures that I think befalls people in their thirties (and as I near thirty two I have some notion of these) and the expectation of what they ‘should be doing’ by that age.
Some books, especially the more compact ones, would struggle with all these themes (oh I forgot to throw in the theme of ‘blame’) or make them all melodramatic and give as much ‘show’ as they would ‘tell’ but not in the case of ‘Black Bread White Beer’. Every word and sparse sentence is made to do its work. Every character in this book lives and breathes, each one is flawed and (on more than one occasion) rather unlikeable yet that is what makes them so interesting to read about and, dependent on how the words in books enter your brain, watch. It is a book that looks at humans, their hopes, dreams, foibles and dark thoughts and heads not to the black and white, as the title would suggest, but the grey areas in between. Highly recommended reading.
Note: You can also hear Niven in conversation with me about ‘Black Bread White Beer’ and more on this episode of You Wrote The Book.