Book: Castles From Cobwebs
Author: J.A. Mensah
Publication date: February 18 2021
Price (Hardback): £14.99
You can purchase the bookhereReviewed by Reshma Ruia
Castles From Cobwebs is a remarkable story of a young Black girl brought up in a religious community on a remote Northumbrian island. With the atmosphere of a fable, it is also an insightful examination of racial inequality and historical crimes.
From an early age, Imani is conscious of her colour and her difference. ‘I’d always known that I was Brown. Black was different though; it came announced. Black came with expectations, of rhythm and other things that might trip me up.’
Assuaging Imani’s loneliness and sense of alienation is a mysterious spirit called Amarie, who appears at key moments in her life offering warnings and tantalising glimpses into her past. While Imani grapples with this shadowy projection of self, she also tries to unravel the mystery of her birth and her dead mother’s identity.
JA Mensah’s debut novel deservedly won the inaugural 2020 Northbound Book Award. In vivid, visual prose, Mensah’s narrative spans the cold, austere beauty of a remote Northumbria convent and the rich, textured colours and sounds of Ghana.
The novel particularly comes alive when she describes the ritualistic mourning for Imani’s mother in a Ghanaian village, and her troubled meanderings along the seaside in Northumbria. It also gave a refreshing portrayal of daily life in Ghana. There was no unnecessary, clichéd portrayal of poverty and violence; instead, the reader gets a rich tapestry of daily life where there is food, love, family and traditions passed from generation to generation.
Mensah has a sensitive ear for language and observational detail and the novel subtly communicates the pain and injustice of racial and economic hierarchy without resorting to polemical hyperbole. Imani’s moving friendship with Melia and Harold, her fellow misfits, transcends many boundaries and even survives distance and time.
The novel offers a unique blend of magical realism and social commentary – the past and the present intermingle with colonial history, displacement and family ties to form a rich narrative tapestry. It’s core message is about the importance of belonging – whether to a map or a feeling.