In what is still an unusual choice for an established author, Niven Govinden has gone digital for his third novel Black Bread White Beer (if you want the hard copy version you’ll have to go to India to get it). Now, I’m ashamed to admit that before getting this review I had never managed to finish an ebook. So I approached it with a wee bit of trepidation. Thankfully, it’s engaging enough to keep even unenthusiastic ereaders reading. After a bit of initial confusion (it’s published by Harper Collins India, the lead character and narrator is called Amal, but it opens in an English park), I was pretty much hooked.
Black Bread White Beer recounts a couple of days in the life of Amal and Claud, who have just had a miscarriage. The couple’s passage through the stages of grief and gradual acceptance form a loose structure for the book, set in the context of Amal’s feelings about the couples’ differences in background. He’s from an Indian family in Leicester; she’s from a more English than England village in Sussex.
“Automatically, he bows to the Indian gene. Though he thinks of himself as educated and enlightened, it is always the pull of the genes that navigates him through crisis, as if there was a state of sense-making that comes solely from the combined force of his parental cells. Before yesterday, he did not think to analyse such superstition. Now, maybe, is the time for its reappraisal”
Still reeling from the shock and a night of separation as Claud was kept in hospital for observation, the couple drive down to Claud’s Sussex for a day with the in-laws. Govinden perceptively and sensitively dissects the Amal’s feelings of helplessness in the face of Claud’s erratic grief, the farce which ensues when she wants to let her excited parents keep believing in their grandchild until she feels able to tell them, and the reactions of the hardcore home counties to ‘Amal from Leicester’.
Although at times it seems the bulk of the book is made up of Amal’s internal ragings against the slights of his in-laws and underdog feelings towards his wife (“She sits dead straight in a Finishing School posture. In Sussex they learn these rules almost by osmosis”), it ends on an upbeat note, the couple coming together to ask the village maypole for another baby. A huge emotional journey completed in the space of little over 24 hours.
Unfortunately my Luddite tendencies spoilt Black Bread White Beer for me – I just could not get lost in a computer screen in the same way I would with a real book. So in spite of the spot-on details, the perceptively depicted characters, and the pitch-perfect narration, the extra spark that would make the novel into something more than the sum of these parts wasn’t there.
Any Cop?: Perceptive, intelligent and readable, if not breathtaking. But maybe that was just me failing to overcome the electronic barrier. Hopefully other readers will do better.