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Yvette Edwards: A Cupboard Full of Coats

This book was a surprise pick for the 2011 Man Booker long list, a list that did not include the latest works of more famous writers such as A L Kennedy, Anne Enright, Graham Swift, Hari Kunzru and others. The good news is that this book is a very worthy addition to the list and definitely superior to most of those that did not make it. However, it is not entirely surprising to see why it did not make it. Firstly, it is set in the North London black community, specifically descendants of immigrants from Montserrat. Secondly, it does not have a single white character in it. Thirdly, it is not a story of great ideas but a story of a family in the black community caught up in a personal tragedy and how they cope with the tragedy.

The heroine is Jinx and it is her story. Her mother had come over to Britain, from Montserrat, aged sixteen. She was an attractive woman but was lost so was taken in hand by an older man, who eventually married her. Jinx was the result. He died when Jinx’s mother was still young, leaving her a nice house and some money. When Jinx was sixteen, her mother introduced her to Berris, who would be staying with them, while he looked for a house. It soon became apparent that Berris was her mother’s lover and that he was staying for good. Things did not go well and we know, from the beginning of the book, that Berris will murder Jinx’s mother. Indeed, the book starts when Berris is finally released from prison, some sixteen years later. Jinx knows because Lemon (short for Philemon), Berris’ best friend, comes to visit her and tells her. Jinx has not had much success in her own life. Her job is preparing corpses for burial. She had had a relationship with a man called Red and they had had a son. However, the couple had split up and the boy had gone to live with his father. Jinx sees him once a fortnight and a difficult time it is for both mother and son.

Much of the book is when Lemon comes to visit Jinx. He comes frequently and often stays. His wife of long-standing, Mavis, has recently died (of cancer). They discuss the whole relationship with Berris (both Lemon’s and Jinx’s mother’s) but also both their respective lives, in particular Lemon’s self-confessed failure as a husband and father. And, of course, we learn a few things about the relationships that we did not know before. Overall, it is a very fine first novel, with Edwards keeping her characters interesting, the plot full of guesswork and her story well told. And it is certainly better than some of the others mentioned above.

Publishing history

First published 2011 by OneWorld