From the acclaimed author of 26a, comes a dazzling new novel about the fight to achieve one’s dream, and an unsolved disappearance at the heart of a family.
As a child Lucas assumed that all children who’d lost their parents lived on water. Now a restless young man, and still sharing the West London narrowboat with his sister Denise, he secretly investigates the contents of an old wardrobe, in which he finds relics from the Midnight Ballet, an influential black dance company of the 1960s founded by his Jamaican father, the charismatic Antoney Matheus.
In his search to unravel the legacy of the Midnight Ballet, Lucas hears of hot-house rehearsals in an abandoned Notting Hill church, of artistic battles and personal betrayals, and a whirlwind European tour. Most importantly, Lucas learns about his parents’ passionate and tumultuous relationship and of the events that led to his father’s final disappearance.
Vividly conjuring the world of 1950s Kingston, Jamaica, the Blues parties and early carnivals of Ladbroke Grove, the flower stalls and vinyl riflers of modern-day Portobello Road, and the famous leap and fall of Russian dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, Diana Evans creates a haunting and visceral family mystery about absence and inheritance, the battle between love and creativity, and what drives a young man to take flight...
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Diana Evans was a dancer before she became a writer and critic. Her first novel, 26a, received a Betty Trask Award, a nomination for the Guardian First Book Award, and was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Best First Book and Whitbread First Novel of the Year awards. It was also the inaugural winner of the Orange Award for New Writers. She lives in London.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
When Lucas was a boy, asleep in his cabin on the Grand Union Canal, he had a recurring dream. There was the sound of galloping and a change in weather. Sudden wind shook through the sycamore trees that lined the surrounding streets, then into the room came a man dressed head to toe in black, with coat tails and a hat, and large, priestly hands. He lifted Lucas in his arms and took him out into the night.
It felt very much like flying. They sped up Ladbroke Grove and over the dividing hill and Lucas felt fast and warm in the cave between the man’s torso and the horse’s soft brown neck. The coat tails whipped in the wind. They passed through barley fields as the pigeons turned to nightingales. Everything was different, the Westway gone, the Portobello Road less travelled; on and on they went without direction or conversation until speed became home. There was not a stretch of canal for miles out here, not an absence or a cemetery stone, so when Lucas woke up, windswept, in the place he called home, in the ramshackle houseboat with its questions and sideways slant against the bank, his dis orientation was greater than before. Horseback seemed the surer place, and he’d wait earnestly for the coat-tailed stranger to return.
It came to be that whenever he thought of his father he did not think of Antoney Matheus, but a highwayman, who came for him in the depths of sleep and changed the look of the world, as only fathers can. It was easier that way.
He woke up one April morning shortly after his twenty-fifth birthday having had this dream, which had not recurred since the time of his grandmother's death nine years before. It left him with the same feeling of disorientation, the more for its impromptu arrival in his adult mind, and its poignancy increased when he opened his eyes. He was lying on the left-hand side of the queen-size bed he still shared with his sister Denise. His feet were hanging off the end of the mattress as he hadn’t stopped growing until he was six foot three. Around him were grooved wooden walls, cool to the touch, inclining on their ascent from the gunwale, masking cupboards built into every conceivable space to make up for lack of it — linen above his head, clothes in a pull-out next to him, a drawer beneath containing Denise’s handwritten accounts. The cabin was eight foot two inches wide and the ceiling at its highest point five foot nine. Lucas had a stoop in his upper back from habitually bowing his head.
Most oppressive of all was an antique cherrywood wardrobe which loomed at the end of the bed. The only piece of freestanding furniture in the room, it contained items belonging to his parents — his mother, Carla, who had died when he was a few months old, and his father, who’d allegedly drowned. According to a long-standing rule designed to quell Lucas’s childhood fears, the wardrobe was never opened, thereby preventing the vapour of the ghostly, rotting things inside it wafting into his and Denise’s nostrils as they slept, causing nightmares. Indeed on the rare occasions Lucas had peeped inside out of curiosity, a bitter tree smell had slunk out from the darkness within, cutting his nerve and making him step away. It was time for a different waking view, a clear, open road, the inside of a girl’s bedroom maybe. The twentieth century was drawing to a close. The Conservatives had come and gone, so had Tupac and Biggie. Sizzla Kalonji was taking over the reggae world yet here Lucas still was, staring at the same disturbing inanimate presence inches from his feet, blocking his path to the future. He had recently suggested to Denise that they empty the cupboard and decide what to do with its contents, but she’d responded curtly, saying she didn’t see a reason to tamper with things.
Denise, a florist, had left for work hours ago, having neatened her pillow precisely. It was a bright, pink-blossomed morning. Winter had clung to power, and spring had begun that year with high chill winds, lifting the blossom off the branches and bringing it down to rest at road edges, in ravishing pools at the base of the sycamore trunks. Lucas had nothing in particular to get up for other than to finish reading the latest issue of Touch magazine, so he closed his eyes and concentrated on the rocking sensation caused by a passing vessel, which always made him imagine he was on an open sea bound for Jamaica. Today it was difficult. In the receding waves of the dream he was more aware than usual of the wardrobe’s oxidising brass handle rattling with the movements of the boat, a sound, like the ticking of the bedside clock or the creaks in the walls, he’d become used to not hearing. He turned onto his back, venturing with his long skinny leg across the delicate centre divide that Denise was so astute in maintaining. The bed was a wide warm country when it was all his own. They’d shared it ever since their grandmother had gone (when Lucas was twelve, Denise sixteen), in the beginning as a kind of comfort, especially during thunderstorms, now in the hold of a fossilised, seasick habit. However much he spread out this morning, though, he couldn’t shake the feeling of being stifled. Coat tails whipped in the wind. The wardrobe rattled. He got to thinking about Edwin Starr, whom he’d met the day before yesterday in St Albans. In this crowded state of mind, as the Friday traffic passed along Ladbroke Grove outside, he was relieved to feel himself slowly but surely becoming aware of something else — something soothing, a sweet distraction, that thing you can always rely on to take you elsewhere. A lazy, yet willing, matutinal arousal.
Lucas always hesitated at these moments. He was afraid of leaving traces and lethargic at the thought of washing sheets if he did. For a time his hand rested coyly on his inner thigh, but then he decided to go with it, a quick, six-minute ride, to start the day, to settle his head. He’d developed a clever technique over the years that involved throwing off the sheets just before the point of emission and aiming himself upwards towards his chest so that the spray was restricted to that area. For this reason he always removed his T-shirt beforehand. He set out cautiously, with a picture in his mind of Lauryn Hill, whom Denise had refused to let him put on the wall. He wasn’t expecting much, not fully committed to the prospect of clean-up, so he was taken by surprise by a sudden shooting, generous charge that made him yelp, necessitating a particularly urgent clearance of linen so that one of his feet got twisted in the sheets. This meant that he missed the best bit. He lay there afterwards, chest-sprayed, cheated, exhausted, wondering as he often did whether it had really been worth it, and whether Denise, somewhere in flower world, had sensed it.
If you passed that spot back then you might have seen it. If you walked eastwards from Harlesden along the towpath almost to the Ladbroke Grove crossing, perhaps sat down on one of the benches there and looked across to the opposite bank, you might have seen a fifty-foot narrowboat of faded green leaning slightly to its left (this was because of the wardrobe). Her name was Silver, written in sloping letters on one side by the previous owner. There were portholes along the saloon. A handrail lined the bow. A pair of corroded ornamental dragons glared out from either side of the dwarfish cabin doors. It was a relic of a thing, with paint peeling off the steel and a useless, rusted tiller at the stern. It looked, in fact, despite the fresh flowers at the windows, as if it might be sinking, it had been there for such a long time. Lucas and Denise did not know what it was to live on land or to have a front door that could be accessed without first stepping onto a deck, and rocking a little. They didn’t know what it felt like to open that front door to an Avon lady or a British Gas salesman or a Jehovah’s Witness, because the Avon ladies and the British Gas salesmen and the Jehovah’s Witnesses did not have the key. Only if you were a water gypsy with licence to moor at that particular spot, or a friend of one of the water gypsies, were you allowed through the high black gate that separated the towpath from the street.
There were obvious advantages to the situation (hardly any junk mail, less exposure to the impertinences of capitalism) but Lucas often wondered what it would be like to talk about gas prices, or the existence of hell, to a chatty stranger on solid ground. He was unlike most boat-dwellers in this respect. The majority of boat-dwellers have one belief in common — water is freedom. When you’ve tired of a view or you do not wish to be found, when you long to nestle at the shoulder of another urban shore, you simply untether yourself and sail away. You take the murky liquid road at four miles an hour and do a left into Camden, or Bethnal Green, or you go further out, towards the country, and discover new kinds of silence. You go, you go, you disappear. What better way to become invisible than to erase your home, to leave no trace of yourself in sight? What a joy it is to live with just the possibility of such a thing.
This was not how it was for Lucas. This was a permanent, inadvertent mooring with no comparison to a concrete past. He was born on the water, and raised by his grandmother on the same spot. He used to think that all children who’d lost their parents lived on boats, that it was part of the experience of being an orphan — either that or you went to a children’s home, where there were probably fewer spiders but no grandmothers or other advantages. Toreth was a caring, garrulous woman of Welsh descent and had helped Lucas through thunderstorms with her dream-inducing story of Peterjohn the highwayman, who’d had nine children and belonged to the bygone age when Portobello Road was just a rough country lane. She and Lucas used to sit on the bow together in fine weather while Denise was absorbed in some kind of gard...
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Book Description Chatto & Windus, London, 2009. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. Brand New book. Bookseller Inventory # 22654
Book Description Chatto & Windus, 2009. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. Dust Jacket Condition: New. 1st Edition. A mint first printing in a likewise unclipped dust wrapper. Unread gift condition copy signed and Publication day dated 26th August 2009 by this Orange Prize winning author to the title page. BOXED DESPATCH: OVERSEAS AIR ONLY: PLEASE DO NOT SELECT SURFACE!. Signed by Author(s). Bookseller Inventory # ABE-14969952390