I think I’ve found my book of the year (so far), and although it’s actually by a white author*, it is very much rooted in the experiences of an almost all Black cast of characters.
While H.P. Lovecraft infamously wrote in a derogatory way about non-Anglo whites (AKA. he was a racist and very specific type of white supremacist), this lovely book takes his pulpy stories and twists them, this time making its central Black protagonists the heroes – and demonising the mostly middle-aged, wealthy white antagonists. As expected Lovecraft Country has a heavy supernatural/science fiction vibe – and it’s delicious, really.
Broken up into short stories that all add up to a dynamic whole, it focuses on a new character each time, and I have strong feelings for each and every one of them. Pretty sure you will too.
HBO have actually adapted it now into an upcoming show, produced by Jordan Peele and J.J. Abrams – and this is the main reason I picked up the book. That and my boo Matt has been raving about it (and I almost always take all his recommendations because we’re horror twins). I’m not usually a big sci-fi/fantasy fan when it comes to literature but these characters, as well as the very real topic of racial discrimination and the book’s supernatural stylings, they got under my skin and maybe now I’m a convert.
Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff
Chicago, 1954. When his father Montrose goes missing, twenty-two year-old Army veteran Atticus Turner embarks on a road trip to New England to find him, accompanied by his Uncle George – publisher of The Safe Negro Travel Guide – and his childhood friend Letitia. On their journey to the manor of Mr. Braithwhite – heir to the estate that owned one of Atticus’s ancestors – they encounter both mundane terrors of white America and malevolent spirits that seem straight out of the weird tales George devours.
I’m not going to go into any of the intricacies of the plot here because they’re joyous and a real treat to unravel. As above, each story ties into the central themes and the overriding narrative, but also works in bite-sized chunks.
We meet Atticus and his uncle George first, who are joined by childhood pal, Letitia on a road trip to retrieve Atticus’ father Montrose from a mysterious group of rich white men. But what do they want from the family really? Well this trip undoubtedly changes the course of all their lives forever and has a trickle down effect that saturates the rest of their families, including George’s amazing wife Hippolyta and their son – and Letitia’s half-sister Ruby.
Each segment is influenced by Lovecraft’s stories (of which I don’t know enough, I have to admit) and there are elements of supernatural, (Hammer) horror, fantasy and a whole lot more. Central to all the stories is the very real threat posed to our protagonists by the racist system – and it has a lot to say about what’s more dangerous – traveling through a sundown town (or state) or tentacled monsters hiding in your peripheral.
Well for a start I didn’t even know what a sundown town was until I read this and I am appalled – with the concept itself but also my own ignorance. There’s a particularly terrifying chapter in which the characters find them in a sundown state and they have a very small window of time to flee beyond the state line before they’re killed by the pursuing law enforcement. LEGALLY.
It’s nail biting stuff but it’s also devastating because how can this ever have been accepted? It makes you wonder what still might go on underground in places like this because God knows racism is still as prevalent today.
I also have to admit that I only learnt about the Green book after watching the 2018 film of the same name – a film incidentally that I really enjoyed but now recognise to be deeply problematic. We learn every day though, right? Anyway, George and his family travel around the country doing research for the Green book – and I really enjoyed these asides.
Without spoilering, I am really into the female characters of this story – Letitia is a feisty heroine who doesn’t take no for an answer – and one of my favourite threads is the one in which she takes ownership of a haunted house. Meanwhile, her half sister Ruby takes on a very intriguing secret mission which really puts white privilege and the concept of the thin white, European beauty ideal into perspective.
Ruby’s story is right up my street – and really taps into the super unsettling body horror sub-genre. I cannot wait to see what it looks like onscreen. From what I can see (and I’ve been avoiding it as much as I can), the TV adaptation has added – or padded out more characters – presumably to build a fuller Lovecraft Country universe – which means it will probably move beyond the original story – or build it outwards. I just hope it doesn’t lose any of the characterisation or move too far away from the central crew, because they are the best and I love them all.
With regard to its author being white, I’m not sure how I feel about that. That he can write such an amazing book and really tap into such racial themes is impressive, but is it his place? I don’t know the answer to that and it’s something I wish to ruminate on. Perhaps my opinion here doesn’t even matter – and that makes perfect sense too.
My only comment from here is, read this book – it’s a straight up banger. So fun, so rich and it’s genuinely beautiful. I had the most fun texting my thoughts to Matt after every chapter.
What are you reading?
*Even though Matt Ruff is not a Black author, I’ve still categorised it with the other Black books I’ve been reading, just to keep them together.
Such a fun book, honestly. Well, maybe not fun but a great read and one that really promotes a different way of thinking about racism, one that is less overt, not so aggressive – but no less insidious for it. It really made me think and I really appreciated it.
The last month or so I’ve been trying to be a bit more conscious about what I’m reading. Don’t get me wrong, I love my female-authored thrillers, the ones you can read in a day and end up all blurring into one after a while. But these are usually written by white women, about white characters in white situations – and sometimes I want more.
So, like many of us, I have been actively seeking literature that will actually stay with me and teach me something. We all have to start somewhere and I understand that my (minuscule) part in dismantling systematic racism is going to take more than picking up a couple of books or watching a couple of films. But we have to start somewhere.
One of the things I’d most like to do this year is read more books by black authors. Not just educational books but fiction as well.
Queenie’s cover caught my eye in the window of Waterstones just before lock-down – and with time on my hands recently, I was finally able to pick it up… and I really enjoyed myself.
Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams
She just can’t cut a break. Well, apart from one from her long term boyfriend, Tom. That’s just a break though. Definitely not a break up. Stuck between a boss who doesn’t seem to see her, a family who don’t seem to listen (if it’s not Jesus or water rates, they’re not interested), and trying to fit in two worlds that don’t really understand her, it’s no wonder she’s struggling.
She was named to be queen of everything. So why is she finding it so hard to rule her own life?
Queenie is a joy – the book itself but also the deeply flawed character. She might not be able to catch a break but she’s honest and very real. It’s interesting also to read something all too familiar – at the heart of it, this is a rom-com/coming-of-age story like so many before it – but its told from the perspective of a black woman, who has a very different life experience to my own. I appreciate the book for opening up my eyes to situations and environments I will never understand first hand.
The writing flows well and it’s easy to forget you’re reading fiction as Queenie comes to terms with her relationship break, friendships and new found casual sex life. While her world starts to unravel and she’s forced to tackle her own mental health issues (despite her grandmother being ferociously against therapy), Queenie gets into trouble at work – and has to find a way to save the ‘career’ she’s worked so had to cobble together in the first place.
I liked Queenie but I am fully aware she might not be everybody’s cup of tea. At times she is frustrating and self-involved but she’s also funny so I’m okay with that. Who isn’t sometimes? The general message of this story is that Queenie needs to rely on herself before anyone else and when she begins getting to grips with seeing a counselor I was genuinely elated.
The male characters are for the most part total dickheads and not worth mentioning but I liked Queenie’s female crew and their very different attitudes.
The book at first glance could be passed off as kind of ‘fluffy’ but it covers a lot of topics that aren’t trivial at all. I won’t spoiler these parts but I respect it’s unflinching attention to potentially triggering subject matter.
I recommend and also wouldn’t be against meeting Queenie again… film or TV adaptation, pretty please?
What are you reading?