Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Cloths of Heaven

Dramatist and fiction writer, Sue Eckstein has just published her first novel The Cloths of Heaven with Brighton-based Myriad Editions. The title’s from that famous Yeats poem, He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven.

At the centre of the novel is a fabric warehouse in Bakinabe, west Africa. Among the silks and chiffons works a mysterious and troubled English girl, Rachel. The warehouse is both a meeting place, metaphor for global change and maybe too, a tangible indication of the kinds of choices life offers. Certainly, it is where love, desire, longing and loneliness are played out and the Yeats poem is a link to a life before west Africa, almost before adulthood. So this warehouse is a serious place of dreams, secrets and obsession. But Eckstein gives it a twist of gentle irony, too by making it a place of pilgrimage for Father Seamus and Sister Philomena as they seek out kitsch fabrics printed with repeats of the Virgin Mary and Pope John Paul 2.

Father Seamus and Sister Philomena’s story is one of a number of narratives that make up the novel. They are the gentle, eccentric and humane missionaries who are one facet of ex-pat life in west Africa in the early 1990s. In its own way, each narrative draws attention to the legacy of colonialism, psychologically and literally. Like the classic post-colonial novel by Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (a title also borrowed from a Yeats poem, The Second Coming) Eckstein’s story shows the violent and horrific implications of exploitation.

But it also examines the difficulty of aid and the complex, suffocating and at times ludicrous lifestyles of ex-pats forced together only by skin colour or couples who stay together because they are in exile.

I couldn’t put this novel down when I first read it – Eckstein’s no novice, she’s had three plays broadcast on Radio 4 and is a fluid, careful writer. And although she raises important issues in this book about continued European meddling in African society, continuing attempts by the unscrupulous to make a killing by whatever means, it is also a novel about how a single passionate affair reverberates through an individual’s life.

Eckstein’s book will contribute to an important body of fiction written about the continuing relationship between African and European countries. Her background with VSO and now her work in medical ethics ensures that her perspective is informed, intelligent and demanding. This incisive intellect also delivers some fascinating, complex characters who won't necessarily behave the way you expect.