I bought this book partly because I was so attracted to the beautiful manga style cover art centred on a gorgeously drawn black woman’s face. While her necklace looks African to me, her rakish curls of hair, sceptical eyebrow and thick gold earring give her a cartoon romantically piratical air! Meanwhile, two white women on the phone look as if they’re either dealing with a crisis or plotting some intrigue, but as it turns out, the protagonist, Ellie, isn’t a swashbuckling renegade and the other women are just gossiping. Their chatter, often cruel, is McPartlin’s vehicle for working through the harshness and bigotry of a rural mid-’60s Scottish setting. While the ‘pairty line’ vents toxic racism and ignorance, its status as a space for friends to speak openly enables some healing and changes of mind to take place. Religious fissures are bridged by family relationships, and the speakers feel comfortable enough to contradict each other and repent of previous convictions.
The perceptual centre of the novel is Ellie, recently arrived from an unnamed West African country to live with her husband, the factor of a wealthy landowning family estate, and their baby son, Nat. Racism defines all of her interactions in the new country, so the degree to which other characters are able to relate to her and treat her with respect and friendliness measures their moral worth; Ellie’s presence is an ethical barometer.
Her experience is central in other ways; for me the deepest theme here is pleasure, and Ellie’s genius for it is evident in her enjoyment of and love for her son, her interest in food, and especially her quickly formed and increasingly restorative relationship with the beautiful land, lovingly evoked by McPartlin with a warm intimacy that I found distinctive and resonant. It reminded me of Toni Morrison’s work: with hints of nightmarish history at the roots. The root speaks in the shoot, and newly replanted Ellie touches the medicine women’s maligned graves knowing her knowledge of herb lore and the local hostility towards her bequeaths here a tender kinship. She mistakenly calls them nuns, and this speaks to her experience in a missionary school and half-accepted fore-mothers. Female heritage has traction here, even if dubious and sad. The narrative vaunts solidarities between women without smoothing or simplifying rough edges and conflicts. In contrast to Ellie, the native residents seem… dour! From their grim religious outlooks to their drab clothes and bland food, they seem to refuse the pleasures of life.
The most careful, emotionally subtle writing goes into the relationship between Ellie and her husband James, who expects her to lose her identity in assimilation and expresses disappointment that she resists this, is too cowardly to defend her from the overt and thinly veiled racial hostility she experiences, fails to believe her, medicalises her feelings of loneliness and anger, complains about her cooking and breastfeeding and foraging and her gorgeous clothes, and gives his mother a pass on her racism, defending her from confronting her own bigotry and pushing the burden onto Ellie, who sees through his weak and racist behaviour and resists, gathering allies where she can. The only thing that can be said for him is that he loves pleasure, is affectionate and not physically violent. I loathed him and my heart ached for Ellie. My sympathy was unwaveringly with her. I experienced a world of contrasts through her eyes, with the author affirming her clear judgements and emotions.
Childhood is a theme treated with insight and imagination. I see the book as critical of the Scottish lifestyle of the period which has negative effects on health, and also of extractivism since mining corrodes lives both in Hollyburn and in Ellie’s native home. Religious bigotry marks the children’s lives as does their parents’ ill health. Only Ellie’s baby, breastfed and kept close to her in the sweet world of their mutual pleasure, is healthy in mind and body, but Ellie cannot be Africa in herself, she cannot entirely insulate her son from his new environment. In that sense, while there are a lot of optimistic trajectories here, there are no cosy resolutions. Rather than presenting a feelgood outcome that redeems whiteness, McPartlin equips Ellie with an impressive capacity to fight and resist racism without denying her vulnerability and need for support, calling on us all to decolonise ideas of community…