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Love Me, By Gemma Weekes
Love and jazz in Hackney and Brooklyn
Friday 30 January 2009
This debut novel, with its coquettish title, might have been confected for the teen market. Parts of it indeed read like a photo-story romance ("I've been in love with you since I was 15 years old"). Yet Gemma Weekes is a name to watch. Written in a zingy, street-smart prose, Love Me is a bitter-sweet coming-of-age fable that crackles with reflections on race, migration and music.
It unfolds during a hot summer in east London and Brooklyn. Eden Jean-Baptiste, a Hackney-born woman with roots in the Caribbean, is in her mid-twenties and directionless. Her mother left home 14 years earlier for another man, breaking up the family. On leaving school, Eden tries market research, then photography, without success. What next? East London simmers pungently in the heat, Ridley Road market brimming with "old soft fruit and fishy puddles everywhere", as Eden dreams of her ancestral home of St Lucia.
Her life changes when Zed, a Brooklyn rapper and aspirant poet, arrives in London. Eden had first met Zed a decade ago in New York, and their encounter, a classic coup de foudre, had electrified them with lust.
Now Zed captivates Eden once more with his hip-jive patter and regal air, and she falls for him. However, he has become a caricature hip-hop gangster, draped in Nike-brand clothes, while his new girlfriend is a white Debbie Harry lookalike with "fat-free limbs".
Made jealous by Zed's return, Eden decides to quit London. She flies to Brooklyn, and stays with her aunt Katherine, an eccentric Rasta woman who does good works for the poor when not playing jazz trumpet. Old Brooklyn, with its fenced-in yards and crumbled brownstones, is superbly evoked by Weekes, who writes in a hip-hop flow of words, lifting them from the street into a kind of poetry. ("I'm squeezed blue by love, sweating like a runner, breath shallow, chest a cave full of bats.")
Eden has no sooner arrived in Brooklyn than her aunt disappears to St Lucia on a mission to scatter her mother's ashes. Alone, Eden encounters a transvestite called Brandy (Brandon when he's a man), who takes her to the jazz-rap-disco dives round Prospect Park. Rarely has a novel contained so much music: Bob Marley, Prince, Fela Kuti, the Wu-Tang Clan are all name-checked. Along the way, Weekes laments the decline of hip-hop from street celebration to the degraded soundtrack of venality: a "clown music".
After flirting in Brooklyn with a guitarist, Eden is amorously re-united with Zed. Brocaded with Jamaicanisms ("buff", "blud", "batty"), Love Me is quirkily conversational in tone and a wonderfully assured debut. For good or ill, black West Indian culture is youth culture in London today; and Love Me, humorous and immensely warm, belongs to an exciting, hip-hop savvy, cross-cultural genre of British fiction.
Ian Thomson's 'The Dead Yard: Tales of Modern Jamaica' is published by Faber in May
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