Courttia Newland (2013) The Gospel According to Cane Telegram Books, London; 267 pp.; ISBN 978-1-84659157-0
Beverley Cottrell is a middle aged woman who has suffered a major trauma. When her baby boy was eight months old, he was taken from outside a shop while Bev’s husband Patrick was busy inside. Bev was absent, away at a meeting. The guilt of that loss and her estrangement from Patrick have dominated her life ever since.
Bev comes from a wealthy family with origins in Barbados. Her parents are now dead but her sister Jackie and brother-in-law Frank keep in touch. The relationship between Bev and Jackie is not always smooth and in recurring dreams set during the colonial era in Barbados, Bev sees a different sister even though her parents are the same as in real life.
Bev is preoccupied by pain – her own and that of others – and believes that psychological pain is as severe or even worse than physical pain. She cannot imagine any pain that surpasses that of losing her child and her waking days and dream-filled nights often revolve around thoughts of pain and the hold it has over her. It is a web from which it seems she cannot escape.
After the abduction of her baby, Bev gave up her promising teaching career and Patrick finally divorced her. He has a new family in the United States and Bev tries to build bridges to them, though her past actions make this impossible. She works at an after school centre teaching disadvantaged teenagers, but you sense that this might be a way of assuaging her guilt about her own privilege and loss of family more than her love of teaching. She is also obsessive about making lists and writing notes to herself, a technique for improving her self-esteem taught to her by her therapist, Sue. Though no longer in need of therapy, Bev continues to see Sue and counts her as a friend.
Bev’s other friends include Ida, a neighbour who was her only solace when Bev was severely depressed, and Seth, a policeman who took part in the investigation of the disappearance of Bev’s baby. Bev also has a close relationship with some of the pupils in her class, often thinking of them as her family.
Early in the novel, Bev becomes aware of a young man following her and he eventually starts knocking on the letterbox of her flat. Wills, the young man, claims to be Bev’s abducted son. Bev wants to believe him but is also wary. Eventually she lets him move in and their relationship begins to deepen.
All those around Bev – Ida, Sue, Seth, Jackie and Bev’s pupils – warn her to be careful and distrust the young man’s claim to be Bev’s son. Bev ignores all their warnings, as well as advice from Sue and Seth that she should have a DNA test done. Bev fails to report events to the police and lies to Ida and her pupils when asked about Wills and what he is doing in her apartment. The more insistent those around her become, the more Bev pushes people away. Does she fear the truth, or is she just worried that any sign of distrust on her part will push Wills away forever?
When Bev goes to investigate Wills’s story, she makes a shocking discovery, the implications of which create further turmoil in her life. As Wills feels under increasing pressure, he snaps and does something he will regret. Bev’s sister and pupils finally take matters into their own hands, putting them on a collision course with both Bev and Wills. The outcome brings tragedy but also a new path for hope.
Courttia Newland has written a suspenseful and absorbing story. Bev is a deeply flawed character but we can only feel empathy for her pain and the lost years of her life. Wills is enigmatic but clearly he fills a need in Bev’s life, and in the end perhaps Bev’s happiness counts for more than anything else. The crisis generated towards the end of the novel shows Bev where true friendship lies and opens up the possibility of absolution for the mistakes of her past.
I found the climax and resolution of the story wanting in terms of plausibility, but that was largely because of the absence of detail. It is as if Newland found the ending too messy and had to avert his eyes until things were tidied up. Ironically, it is the sort of behaviour you would expect from Bev.