The Gospel According to Cane, By Courttia Newland

The loss of a child frames this novel of grief and survival that draws on both history and science

Anita Sethi
Thursday 02 May 2013 17:03
In the aftermath: Courttia Newland
In the aftermath: Courttia Newland

A nuanced palette of human emotion has been sensitively explored by Courttia Newland in his seven books. At the heart of his unflinching new novel is a profound examination of the causes and effects of pain.

"Dolorimetry (dolor: Latin: pain, grief) is the measurement of pain response in animals, including humans", he writes, and the most extreme pain, he suggests, is the loss of a child. This is the suffering that the middle-aged West Indian Beverley, a former teacher, had to endure when her baby son was kidnapped 20 years ago.

The poet Emily Dickinson wrote of pain, "It has no future but itself". Time - and how pain skews the perception of it - is a powerful theme throughout; Beverley is emotionally stranded in past trauma, haunted by the loss of her baby son and by nightmares of slavery (hence the titular "cane"). She now keeps a journal and runs writing classes for troubled teens in London. One day, her life is upturned when a young man starts stalking her, claiming to be her son. Her loved ones warn her not to be familiar with the stranger but her visceral attachment and yearning for her son battle against reason.

Newland depicts the emotional realities of pain through vivid character development, and also interweaves scientific information. He goes further in probing that perception: "Reality is pain. What determines the real in the outside world is defined by electrical impulses that make contact with our nerves, and in turn our brains. What determines pain in our bodies is defined by electrical impulses that make contact with our nerves, and in turn our brains".

This memorable and moving novel develops into an engrossing exploration of the relationship between writing and pain. "Miss - what do people write for?" asks one of Beverley's students. "They write because they want to make sense of their pain", she replies. Yet this is far from an unrelentingly bleak book; spotted on a Post-it note is a line from actor John Barrymore: "Happiness often sneaks in from a door you left open". For all the suffering, there are also moments of joy, as Newland shows how writing itself can be a tool of survival, making this an ultimately pleasurable read.

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