Music for the Off-Key, by Courttia Newland

A hankering for forbidden fruit
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The Independent Culture

Although he may be known first and foremost for his depiction of working class, estate-bound London youth in novels such as The Scholar, Courttia Newland has shown an admirable range in his relatively short, yet productive career. He is a writer in the broadest sense of the term, one who has scripted for the small screen, adapted Greek tragedies for the stage and contributed many short stories to a number of anthologies.

Off-Key returns to the form as Newland presents a dozen strange misadventures that loosely parallel Roald Dahl's Tales Of The Unexpected, revealing a wide spectrum of registers of language and scenarios in the process. Black characters are at the heart of the stories, but they are not confined to "standard" black contexts. They are not all "urban". So, while Newland takes us back to the austere environs of the west London he documented so vividly in The Scholar through white-knuckled narratives such as "All Crews", he also enters worlds that are as far removed from the aforementioned as one could imagine.

"Double Room" is set in an hotel in which an audacious receptionist undertakes an ill-advised tryst with a fit young male guest who is literally and figuratively tied to an older woman. "Gold" sees a homeless man betray a young girl's kindness with tragic results. As for "Smile, Mannequin, Smile", it is perhaps the most off-key of Newland's melodies: the weird case of a brilliant doll-maker who creates a dummy so exquisite she can't help but project life-like qualities on to it and eventually loses her grip on reality. She steals the mannequin back from the businessman who commissioned it and then takes it home on the bus. She buys two tickets.

Not every story is executed as well as the above. In some cases, Newland doesn't tease with his plot development as much as he should do, and sometimes the denouement is hinted at a bit too clearly. In other cases, the twist doesn't quite twist sharply enough.

Then again, there's a subtlety and a metaphorical power that makes some of the apparently understated stories stand out. "His Healing Hands" sees a gifted young man lose his gift only to gain both a greater understanding of life and a sense of emotional fulfillment through the birth of his daughter. It's a well-wrought allegory.

What impresses most, though, is Newland's characterisation. None of the Off-Key protagonists are one- dimensional. None of them are caricatures. From the bullied schoolboy with obvious echoes of Damilola Taylor to the backsliding ravers with a pocketful of pills to the mannequin-maker with a passion for all things Japanese, there is a verisimilitude and behavioural logic underpinning dialogue, action and reaction. Welling the painter with a penchant for young girls is the kind of universal post-Lolita creation that has arguably the most psychological depth. His hankering for forbidden fruit is conveyed in a non-judgmental way and his eventual demise is engineered by a lethal injection of paranoia, petulance and naivety. This modern-day Humbert Humbert is essentially a confused child trapped inside a man.

His story is one of the high points of this collection that casts the occasional lows into shadow. There are several other pieces that are of the same craftsmanship, emphasising Newland's ability to broach anything from race to sexuality to loyalty with a well-paced sobriety that can slyly mask a stinging sucker-punch. All of which suggests that the author will continue to experiment, evolve and most importantly, surprise.

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