The Book of Echoes by Rosanna Amaka
Published by Doubleday Books on 27th February
Available from All Good Bookshops and Online
What They Say
Narrated by the spirit of an enslaved African, this is a searing debut about hope, redemption and the scars of history.
Over two hundred years ago in Africa, a woman tosses her young son to safety as she is hauled off by slavers. After a brutal sea passage, her second child is snatched away. Although the woman doesn’t know it yet, her spirit is destined to roam the earth in search of her lost children.
It will make its way to 1980s Brixton, where she watches teenage Michael attempt to stay out of trouble as riots spit and boil onthe streets; and to a poor village in Nigeria, where Ngozi struggles to better her life..
As the invisible threads that draw these two together are pulled ever tighter, The Book of Echoes asks: how can we overcome the traumas of the past when they are woven so inextricably with the present? Humming with horror and beauty, Rosanna Amaka’s remarkable debut marks her as a vibrant new voice in fiction.
What I Say
‘Unknowingly being passed down a baton of scars because their job was to survive, to hand on the baton in the hope of a better tomorrow, for the next generation to make it better than it was’.
Hand on heart, I had seen this novel, and I thought it wasn’t for me. I am trying to be more responsible and only request proofs I know I am going to read and review, because I don’t feel it’s right to ask for them if they are just going to sit on my shelf.
When Tabitha from Doubleday asked me if I would be interesting in reading and reviewing My Book of Echoes, I read the blurb again, and thought the dual narrative, and the notion of two seemingly disparate lives tentatively connected was one I would like to explore.
Twenty pages in, I sent Tabitha a DM:
‘Tabitha! The Book of Echoes! Oh My Goodness!!’
That’s quite a statement for a book I wasn’t sure about, but I mean every word – and even more so when I tell you that this book is going on my #MostSelfishReads2020 List.
The novel starts with an unnamed pregnant female narrator arriving at the West India Docks in London in 1803 after having been stowed away in the ship with many other people, suffering inhumane conditions. Wind, a sailor and former slave, pulls the Narrator out of the ship where she is forced to leave and gives birth to a child who is taken from her immediately. She then appears as a spirit that is present throughout the pages, as she weaves her way through the world as an all seeing presence.
The Book of Echoes is also the story of Ngozi and Michael. Ngozi is a young woman in Nigeria, who knows that the only way she will find a better way of life is to leave her family behind, and provide for them from afar. She is a valuable commodity, an object that can be bought and sold, but her mother does this reluctantly. Ngozi has to leave in order for her family to survive, and to be perceived as a good daughter she has to acquiesce to what they need.
When an horrific tragedy befalls the first family she is sent to, Ngozi is left to fend for herself, and she ends up with the Osindu family where she is targetted by both the mother and father in equally awful and extremely distressing ways.
As Ngozi gets older, she realises that her body and sexuality which has been used by others to get what they want from her, is now the very thing she can use against them to get what she wants.
Michael lives miles away from Ngozi, in Brixton, where he, his mother and his sister Marcia are existing as a family unit. That is until one day, Michael’s mother is murdered at their home, and his whole world is turned upside down. He and Marcia have to go and live with their aunt and uncle, and suddenly everything they ever knew is turned on its head. Michael is determined to care for his younger sister, but he needs to earn money and fast. After seeing his school friend Devon, who is doing really well for himself he decides that working as a courier for Devon’s boss Tom, is the way to ensure he can pacify the social services and give him the income he needs in order that he is able to care for his sister.
Set against the backdrop of the Brixton riots, and the racial tension which seeps through the pages of Michael’s story, there is always the sense in Rosanna’s writing that Michael’s journey is about to get a lot more complicated. When Devon is accused of not delivering the packages (which it transpires should have contained drugs), Michael is caught up in the ensuing fight and Devon is killed. Michael is found guilty of his murder and is sent to prison for three years. He emerges a changed man, weary of the world and unable to see his place in it, which drives him to his lowest point until his sister Marcia helps him see that life really is worth living.
Ngozi meanwhile is learning exactly how to get what she wants by flirting with the business men who come to the bank where she is an assistant. They are enchanted by this beautiful woman who is quick witted, beautiful and intelligent, while Ngozi is absolutely aware that by using this, she can escape the world she is desperate to leave behind. When she meets Ben McDonald, a businessman from Scotland, they embark on a relationship which gives Ngozi a home and a social standing of sorts, but she and Ben are still seen as outsiders and are regarded with suspicion and excluded from the social world around them.
Ben regularly returns to Scotland, and refuses to tell her why. It is only when Ngozi discovers that she is pregnant does Ben reveal the truth about his life to her. Convinced she can get him to stay with her, she decides to go to Ben’s home and confront his wife, which results in Ngozi losing the baby and realising she is totally alone. Ngozi is ostracised again, and finds herself in London, alone and looking for work.
Ngozi and Michael, in spite of the experiences they have both been through are resilient and determined that they will ensure that from now on their lives will be very different. Ngozi finds success in designing successful software, and Michael’s talents lie in renovating and selling houses.
Little by little, in tantalising steps, Rosanna brings Ngozi and Michael closer, until they meet, and their life together pulls the novel even futher through history as we see what happens to them. What was also interesting for me, was the character of Marcia, Michael’s sister, who has had to deal with witnessing her Mum’s murder, the imprisonment of her brother, and the estrangement from her other brother too.
However, her intelligence and drive means that from a very early age Marcia is determined to make sure she is the force for change in her family, and she has to learn to suppress the enormity of what she has seen in order to function. Until one day, when it all becomes too much, and she now has to rely on the family to help her – and they realise exactly what Marcia has endured. For me, Marcia was a really interesting character, she has so much quiet presence and determination, and was a woman who you felt really had dealt with so much with dignity and perseverance.
As a reader, it is impossible not to be swept along with the scope and ambition of the plot. Having the nameless narrator as the link through the book just works so beautifully, because it brings the reader right into the narrative – I felt that I was there with her, as an observer on Ngozi and Michael’s world. The prose and descriptions are perfect, as you feel totally immersed in the landscape and history, and it also taught me so much about lives I had no experience of.
The Book of Echoes is a raw, brutal and tender story which is uncompromising in its portrayal of the realities of life for Ngozi and Michael. It is unflinching and heartbreaking, told without compromise, but at the heart of it, are the souls of Michael and Ngozi, whose seemingly disparate lives fit together so seamlessly, that there could only ever have been one ending.
I absolutely loved it.
Thank you so much to Tabitha Pelly for my gifted copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.