February marks the arrival of Castles from Cobwebs, the highly anticipated debut from J. A. Mensah, inaugural winner of New Writing North’s NorthBound Book Award. Much like her recent story in The Book of Newcastle, published by Comma Press, it’s as powerful as it is unique.
This magical realist novel comes alive through a weaving narrative, told from the perspective of Imani, rescued and raised by a convent on a remote Northumbrian island. Much like a cobweb in structure, Mensah spins a story out of fragments, mirroring Imani’s displacement and confusion surrounding her identity. This element was particularly poignant from a reader’s perspective, acting as a continuous reminder that her childlike curiosity at the beginning of the book is rooted in something bigger.
‘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.’
Divided into three sections, Mensah explores Imani’s conflicting identities through sharply contrasting landscapes. First, Northumbria. While the water that separates Holymead Island the mainland draws attention to her isolation, the protagonist feels a connection with the nature that surrounds her. Here, it is her Blackness that defines her and is the thing that truly makes her feel separate. Then, she is called to Ghana following the death of her biological mother. A chaotic landscape in comparison, full of sound and rhythm and intrigue for her cultural heritage. Belonging becomes difficult again when she realises there is more to her identity than the colour of her skin.
In an interview with New Writing North, Mensah mentioned that the novel is in part influenced by her own experience, working in Northumberland and her father’s roots in Ghana. She explains: “I haven’t lived in either location, but both places are sites that are ‘almost home’ to me. And in both I don’t completely belong.”
Similarly, Imani’s identities continuously conflict and intersect, an idea the author successfully explores and seeks to reconcile throughout the novel. In the process, Mensah brings a brilliant lyricism to the way she constructs the story — poetic, sharp and consciously moving.
‘Tin. / I replay the things Aunt Esi has said. / Tin, tap. / Lay them beside what Aunt Grace toldme. / Tin, tin. / Moving the pieces around, I try to fit them together, to make sense of it all. /’
One aspect of the book that stood out as incredibly interesting were the themes of faith and belief, particularly the distinction between her English and African cultures. The author implements one key symbol which unites the two: Imani’s spirit companion (or imaginary friend), Amarie. The themes of belief, faith and reality are beautifully combined in this character who transcends religious identity, a really intriguing aspect to dwell on as a reader.
This striking debut is a memorable read that shines a light on important social issues whilst telling a beautiful story of hope, friendship and self-discovery.
J. A Mensah is a writer based in the North East of England. You can buy her novel now, available here.
Words: Beth Barker
Beth Barker is a writer and blogger from Blackpool, now working in Manchester. She also co-hosts Up North Books, a podcast celebrating books and writers from the North of England.
Beth wanted to contribute a monthly review to NRTH LASS in order to shine a light on Northern women writing great books. The North is very much underrepresented in publishing and she hopes a monthly review throughout 2021 will showcase the talent Northern women have to offer.
For more book reviews and insights on publishing in the North, follow Beth on Instagram and Twitter.