The Jhalak Prize, pt. 1: Speak Gigantular and Augustown

Speak Gigantular, by Irenosen Okojie

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The blurb on the back of Speak Gigantular is terrific. It primes you for “worlds where lovelorn aliens abduct innocent coffee shop waitresses, where the London Underground is inhabited by the ghosts of errant Londoners caught between here and the hereafter, where insensitive men cheat on their mistresses”. And this delightfully weird, unpredictable, electric short story collection delivers all of these things. Often, you don’t quite know what’s going on until the very end, as with the story “Walk With Sleep”. Its two protagonists, Haji and October, come together in the tunnels under London, but parallel narrative strands describe their lives above ground; I didn’t understand how these two time periods related to each other until the story’s final pages. Okojie keeps her exposition to an absolute minimum, assuming that the reader will be able to use dialogue and detail to work out the trajectory of a story for herself. Most of the time she’s right, though occasionally I would have liked a little more authorial guidance: “Please Feed Motion”, for instance, a bizarre and beautiful fable about an imprisoned woman and the statues of London, left me baffled at the end, wondering what exactly we were meant to be concluding (and what on earth the title meant.)

But that’s a risk with magical realism, which is the territory of Okojie’s stories here, and the fact that they don’t always succeed only reinforces their ambitiousness. The ones that worked best for me were the ones that merely glanced at the uncanny. “Why is Pepe Canary Yellow?” is a painfully good, mildly surreal story about a man who robs banks dressed as a chicken; the weirdness here is the kind that is actually believable, and when Okojie delves into Pepe the bank robber’s backstory, it remains convincing: we know that this kind of misfortune happens all the time, for no good reason. On the other hand, “Animal Parts” is a highly fantastical story about a Danish woman named Ann whose attempts to conceive a child with the help of a sperm bank result in a son, Henri, who has a tail. The end of that story is uncompromisingly violent—emotionally as well as physically—and it left me pinned and gasping in the same way as a good Angela Carter story does.

My one quibble with this book is in the copy-editing, which is going to sound churlish but is nevertheless important. It’s published by a small press, Jacaranda Books, and I can believe that money for a full-time professional copy-editor is possibly not at the top of their priorities list. But mistakes like “dessert” instead of “desert” (twice) and “mushroom and leak soup” are not the sorts of mistakes that you need a professional to spot. If a casual reader can spot an error at first glance, the editor in charge of this book should have done so too. It does a disservice to Okojie’s vivid, untrammeled imagination to leave clangers like this.

Augustown, by Kei Miller

28447227More magical realism, this time in novel form, from the Jamaican poet Kei Miller, who won the Forward Prize last year. Miller’s publishers, at least, know what they’re doing—no infelicitous typos here—and the prose is of that assured sort that lets you sink into it with confidence from page one, knowing that you can trust it; that you don’t have to be on your guard for an awkward turn of phrase or a poorly executed line of dialogue. It is such a relief to be able to relax into a book like this.

A blurb on the back suggests that we are to see the novel as sly meta-fiction, despite its comfortably conversational tone, and I think that’s accurate. Miller tells a story (or two) within a story; we start out focusing on the little boy Kaia, coming down John Golding Road in tears because of an incident that happened at school that day. But we quickly dive into other stories: his great-aunt Ma Taffy says to him, “Did I ever tell you ’bout the flying preacherman?” and we’re off into the story of Master Bedward, a real-life Jamaican prophet who assured his flock in 1920 that the day of reckoning was nigh. In Ma Taffy’s retelling—and she positions herself as an eyewitness—Bedward really did begin to ascend into the sky that day, but “Babylon”—the system, The Man, in this case represented by the white police force—pulled him back down. There is a lot in Augustown about the history of Rastafari, the ways in which its practitioners have historically been suppressed and unfairly targeted, the weight of oppression that makes what happens to Kaia at school an injury not to be borne. But Miller does it all carefully, almost colloquially; there is very little in the way of overt parallel-drawing. You feel mostly as if you are being told a lot of stories. Only halfway through the book do you start to realise how relevant they all are to one another.

This is true, too, of the personal relationships in the book. Kaia has a particular connection to the principal of his school, who in turn has a particular connection to the maid who cleans her house, but they don’t know this; in the crowd of angry Rastafari marching to the school there is a man, Bongo Moody, who has a particularly strong reason for being angry, but few other people know it. In almost any other novel, the unknown connections between these people would be the focus, but Miller doesn’t look at them too closely. He just holds them before us, along with all the other events of the book, and lets us realise the implications. It takes a strong writer to resist the temptation to over-explain, but this restraint and subtlety are characteristic of Augustown. I’d highly recommend it to people who liked Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings, and also to people who didn’t: it’s much less violent and sweary, while also exploring Jamaican history and social issues in magnificently confident prose.

This is the inaugural year of the Jhalak Prize, for the best book written by a BAME author in the UK. Both of these books were longlisted; Speak Gigantular has made the shortlist. I’m reading my way through some of the other longlisted books and will continue to post thoughts on them.

Speak Gigantular was published by Jacaranda Books on 3 January 2017. Augustown was published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson on 14 July 2016.

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11 thoughts on “The Jhalak Prize, pt. 1: Speak Gigantular and Augustown

    • Both of them are definitely magical-realist to some extent; if you really love it, you might particularly enjoy Speak Gigantular, which is just insanely creative.

  1. I have a low tolerance for strange stories (I’ll be reviewing some on Friday), so I doubt I’ll seek out Speak Gigantular. However, I enjoyed your review, and now I’ll be looking out for proofreading fails in the Jacaranda book I recently received as a Goodreads giveaway win 😉

    Kei Miller’s poetry book The Cartographer Tries to Maps a Way to Zion is wonderful. I would highly recommend it to you. I saw him speak last year and loved the rhythms of his work being read aloud. His fiction doesn’t necessarily appeal, but I might give it a try.

    • They are really very strange, so if it’s not your thing, don’t try them! But I’m glad you enjoyed the review. I’d really like to read some of Kei Miller’s poetry; and honestly, this novel is so good that if you liked his poems you might want to give the first few pages a quick peek.

    • I think it’s the sort of thing that would really appeal to you – some of the stories are so syntactically balanced that they’re almost poetry.

  2. Speak Gigantular has been on my TBR for ages; your review has really made me want to read it – it’ll be my next short story collection read. I’m kind of endeared to the typos too; I know they should’ve been picked up but they’re exactly the errors I make too, so much so, I’ve considered writing a story entirely in homophones.

    • I mean, given how surreal the stories all are, I can totally see Okojie deciding to literalise a typo in future work (what would ACTUAL “mushroom and leak” soup look like?!)

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