Coin Locker Babies is really hard to summarise. It explores the lives of two boys abandoned by their mothers at birth in coin lockers in Yokohama, Japan. They find each other at the Cherryfield Orphanage and though they are very different, their origins force them into an intense and complex bond of brotherhood that seethes with an undercurrent of need, fear and violence.
The novel seems to begin as one thing and then part way through becomes something else. This isn’t to say that Coin Locker Babies lacks an overarching narrative drive, that’s not quite what I mean, rather that it was hard to anticipate where the plot might turn and while this can be an exciting feeling, I confess to being frustrated at times by where the boys and their lives seemed to be going. But, and this is crucial, it is a hard novel to forget.
I’m wary of campus novels. There is an allure but also an expectation that I will be about to meet a whole load of intense, self-obsessed and privileged characters whose wider understanding of the world feels limited to their age and experience in a way that isn’t always intoxicating and impassioned enough to mitigate my irritation. Real Life really is, as The New Yorker called it, ‘a new kind of campus novel’. Though the collegiate experience is central to the book, the main character Wallace so finely dissects the minutiae of human interaction, those millisecond pauses in which we read each others’ expressions and interpret each others language, in which we consider how much to say and how much to withhold, that I think I bent down almost half of the pages of the book.
Wallace is studying biochemistry. He has forged a new life for himself away from his roots in Alabama, roots that he rarely shares but that we are given in the only passage of first person that gives us the pain of his childhood abuse at first hand. His father has just died and he didn’t travel back for the funeral. When the book opens he hasn’t yet told his friends.
This is an absorbing and overwhelming novel. The flow and rhythm of the prose sucks you in and holds you enthralled. It is very difficult to put down as each new character brings a new perspective upon what happened to the witch found mutilated and floating in the canal near the village of La Matosa in Mexico. Who was the witch? How did she die? Was she even a she?
The relentless nature of the prose that flows without paragraphs, without a sense of breath almost, mirrors that of the oppressive sense of hopelessness that presses in on the characters. This is a village with few prospects for its inhabitants. Money seems to be made from living near the highway, from leaving and heading to the oilfields in the North, or from selling beer, drugs or sex. There is a desperation bred and fed by capitalist desires in a place where jobs are scarce.
What a delight to interview Heidi James on the publication of her novel, The Sound Mirror published by Bluemoose Books this August 2020. You can either take a look on my Authors QH page here, or just have a look here. We went from enforced silence to hauntology, abuse to language and back and there were even tears. You’ve been warned.
Pew is an extraordinary novel. Every word weighty with meaning, measured just so, held up to bright examination and understood to always, even with this level of care, be wanting. It’s a political, intersectional, theological and philosophical exploration of life from the viewpoint of a person who rarely speaks and who likes to sleep in churches when they’re tired.
Found one morning sleeping in a family’s regular pew, the local community is baffled by this person. What age are they? What race are they? Are they male or female? Why don’t they just help them out by speaking a little, by explaining themselves?