Yvvette Edwards’ first novel cracked the long list last summer for the Man Booker Prize. But it’s only now crashing ashore here. Maybe the subject matter explains the delay. Set among London’s Caribbean immigrants, A Cupboard Full of Coats is the backward-looking story of a battered woman and three people who played a role in her death: the two men who loved her and the daughter — appropriately named Jinx — who has spent much of 14 years hating her.
As the novel begins, Jinx, 30, is divorced and estranged from her 4-year-old son, who lives with his father and is afraid of her. Sheathed in an “armour of indifference that I’d been enveloped in for years” and convinced that “the only person I could ever truly depend on was me,” she lives alone.
Things quickly change after she opens the door one Friday and finds the 50-something Lemon on the doorstep. Friend to Jinx’s mother, Lemon also is best friend to Berris, the man jailed for her murder. Jinx lets Lemon in, along with all the baggage from the past that she has tried so hard to bury. During the ensuing weekend, Lemon helps her unpack it, intermittently taking charge of a story that he and Jinx unravel together, in deftly interwoven first-person accounts.
“Most stories are like that bowl of soup you eating now,” Lemon tells Jinx, as she devours one of the many Caribbean dishes he serves up. “A whole heap of ingredients” must be “put together at the proper time.”
Edwards practices what Lemon preaches in bringing her own rich stew to a simmer. Coats travels back to the impoverished Montserrat beginnings that Lemon and Berris endured as well as the more sheltered childhoods of Jinx and her mother. These flashbacks share time with the present, in which Jinx tries to make sense of the mess she has made of her life.
Lemon’s unique voice is unforgettable, refracted through his patois and laced with a humor that gives way to melancholy, as he reflects on all his mistakes. But even more intriguing is Edwards’ ability to toggle between the 30-year-old Jinx and her memories of what she was like as a 16-year-old girl: Fascinated and repelled by sex. Adoring her mother and jealous of her mother’s beauty.
The novel has its shortcomings. Jinx’s mother remains a cipher, enshrouded in a naivete that isn’t always credible. The writing — lyrical, evocative and generally a real strength — occasionally shifts into overdrive. The feel-good ending is much too neat. But one could cast each of these stones at Dickens, a fellow Londoner with whom Edwards shares far more than setting, including expert plotting, a flair for the dramatic and an ability to create characters vividly idiosyncratic and classically archetypal.
Mike Fischer reviewed this book for The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.