“Even with my knowledge, I was sure Mother Nature was black: she had rhythm, symmetry and style. Throughout Northumberland and the holy islands, there were extravagant displays of Mother Nature’s ‘creative exuberance’, from the giant redwood trees that lined the grounds of St Teresa’s, to the flame-billed puffins on the Farne islands, to the way the old monks’ priory had aged, somehow blooming in its own disintegration.” (Pg. 47)
J.A. Mensah’s writing maintains this brilliance and beauty throughout her debut novel Castles from Cobwebs, exploring landscapes, personal journeys, race, and family.
I first discovered J.A. Mensah last year through Comma Press’ short story Collection The Book of Newcastle. Her story ‘Thunder Thursday on Pemberton Grove’ was my absolute favourite, it simply mesmerised me. So when I saw that Saraband were publishing her debut novel, I desperately needed to read it. I am so glad that I did, and thank you to Saraband for my copies!
Imani is a foundling, left as a baby outside a convent on a remote Northumbrian island. Imani grows up with an expanding sense of displacement: from the nuns who raised her, from her classmates who don’t look like her, from the mainland that she is cut off from.
When Imani is 19, she receives a life-changing phone call. Her biological mother has died and she must go to Accra, Ghana, at once. This begins a journey for meaning, roots, and history, and Imani might just find herself along the way.
This novel was everything and more than I hoped it to be. Starting with the remote landscape of Holymead island, this gave me the North East fix I have been so desperately craving ever since leaving. Imani’s North East is one of isolation, whether she knows it or not. Imani has a kinship to the Northumbrian landscape and feels at home here, but others see the water that cuts them off from the outside world:
“‘The grounds and the walls are like a moat. They keep people out unless we say they can come in.’
‘We’re like the island within the island,’ she says.” (Pg. 31)
Despite this, it is her home:
"I am stones, shells and sea glass collected on the muddy banks of holymead and the rocky shores of the Farne islands." (Pg. 29)
The inhabitants of the island make Imani feel displaced, not her remote landscape. Being Black, she grows up having no one to compare herself to. We see Imani’s ideas of race develop, from realising she physically differs to her white peers, to feeling a connection to the Black singers she discovers, to seeing the damaging effects of Eurocentric beauty standards on her family members in Ghana.
"Black was different, though: it came announced." (Pg. 95)
Imani is caught between these two worlds, England and Ghana. She is not English enough in England, but in Ghana, she is too Anglicised. Her search to reconcile these sides of herself is the root of this story and leads to an interesting way for the story to be told.
The novel creates an oral retelling of Imani’s life, merging past and present by weaving in Ghanian folklore and stories of her family. Imani's story is layered with the tales of others; the nuns from the convent, that of her mother, and others in her family. Their pasts, their secrets, and their connections to one another. This novel is like a cobweb, with the characters’ stories intersecting at different points, overlapping and reweaving themselves to make one large, beautiful web. These overlapping stories help Imani to see the path in front of her, guiding her to the centre of her web: who she is.
I know that this will be one of my top books of the year, if not the book of the year. The writing is exquisite, the plot is thoughtful and complex, and the characters are deepy lovable. This story will be told like folklore, passed on from person to person. And this is me passing it onto you.
Castles from Cobwebs is being published on 18th February by Saraband. You can pre-order it here.
Some more of my favourite quotes from the novel:
"When my mother fell, I didn't hear it, but I felt it. It took a while for the vibrations to be understood, but the shiver down my spine, the peal of my phone, and my aunt Grace from Ghana saying my name, these were the gongs that announced a change in the weather." (Pg. 81)
"I don't know any of the roads in London, and if the city’s as big as they say it is, I wonder how she expects me to be aware of a specific street." (Pg. 115)
"Water has been a constant in all of the places I’ve called home." (Pg. 223)
"There it was again, that word. Like Black, it explodes into existence, creating impacts I never fully understand." (Pg. 233)
Thanks for reading!