Drama | Literature

Book Review – BLACK BREAD WHITE BEER by Niven Govinden

Black Bread White Beer Synopsis

Black Bread White Beer by Niven GovindenOBSERVER BOOKS OF THE YEAR 2012

LONGLISTED FOR THE DSC PRIZE FOR SOUTH ASIAN LITERATURE

Amal is driving his wife Claud from London to her parents’ country house. In the wake of Claud’s miscarriage, it is a journey that will push their relationship – once almost perfect – towards possible collapse.

In this, his latest novel, Govinden casts a critical eye on a society in which, in spite of never-ending advances in social media communications, the young still find it difficult to communicate.

A devastatingly passionate and real portrait of a marriage, Black Bread White Beer keenly captures the abandon, selfishness, hazards and pleasures that come with giving your life to another.

(The Friday Project, Harper Collins)

BOOK REVIEW by Tony Ziemek

In tone and atmosphere, Black Bread White Beer by Niven Govinden is quintessentially British. Yet it is not just the Britain of village greens and quaint pubs but the modern one of cultural intermingling and friction. Amal is from an Indian family in Leicester. He is married to Claud, whose family live in a Sussex village of maypoles, morris dancers and organising petitions against a changing world.

They live in London, where cultures coexist but there is a lingering sense that people are still either insiders or outsiders. Early in the book, en route to hospital to collect his wife, Amal stops at a car valet service, determined that the BMW should be clean for his wife. He chats to the Pole who cleans the car about coffee and tea and countries of origin (and subtly acknowledging differences in masculine gestures), and then reveals:

‘We had a miscarriage. Yesterday.’
‘I am sorry to hear that, brother.’
‘Everything’s fine, well, she’s fine, now. They kept her in only because there was a spare bed. Monitoring her, you know. Procedure. It’s just been a shock.’
‘In my country, this is something we do not speak of. It is kept in the preserve of the women.’
‘My country too.’

Automatically, he bows to the Indian gene. Though he thinks of himself as educated and enlightened, it is always the pull of the genes that navigates him through crisis, as if there was a state of sense-making that comes solely from the combined force of his parental cells. Before yesterday, he did not think to analyse such superstition. Now, maybe, is the time for its reappraisal.

This sense of separateness extends to the relationship between Amal and Claud. There are the different perspectives of gender but also racial and cultural differences that lie just below the surface in the banal details of daily life, even when no malice is intended:

‘Since when have you been into tartan?’
‘It’s not a question of being into. Tartan’s something everyone’s brought up with in Britain.’

Those final two words, randomly chosen to put him in his place. His parents were not born in England. He wouldn’t understand. It is something from Sam’s repertoire, picked up so thoughtlessly, used so often. She does not know that she is even doing it; does not know what it means.

The differences between them are intensified by the emotional strain of the miscarriage, which shapes the simple plot of Black Bread White Beer. Instead, the reader is led by the intricate emotional undercurrents as perceived by Amal, set against the intense detail of their domestic world.

However, Govinden contrasts this intensity with tones of lightness:

Emotion is difficult to gauge when the subjects of observation are tugging on French sticks with Polydented teeth.

At times, humour adds a new dimension to the core themes as shown here following a visit by Amal’s parent’s to Claud’s family home:

“Bloody woman,’ complained Puppa down the phone after one wet bank holiday get together. ‘We drove all this way expecting a nice rib of beef and Yorkshire pud, and she serves us this tasteless, watery thali in cereal bowls! We had to stop at the services on the way home to make up for it.’”

There is satirical humour too in the obsessive dietary and clinical regime that Amal and Claud have followed in preparing to have a baby. This extends as far as:

Claud has not touched pork for over two years. Not even long weekends in Grenada or Barcelona, touring time-worn Jamon bars could persuade her to accompany her glass of Oloroso with a slice of Serrano, Iberico, or Chorizo. She worried about the effect of too much red meat on their future offspring even then.

At this point, I loathed the character of Claud and all the life-denying obsessions that she represents. Unless you are an unwavering vegetarian how could you be in Spain and avoid jamon! And perhaps this is the point: the middle-class struggle to embrace life, encumbered by neurotic diets and parenting theories aimed at optimising and accelerating a natural process and of course, a speedy return to the office.

Eventually though, the main characters literally (if not entirely seriously) embrace a kind of paganism that is a way of regenerating their relationship. This may seem odd but it is treated subtly by Govinden, as are all the themes in this book. In the end, Black Bread White Beer is not a polemic but an acknowledgement of the reality of a modern, middle-class Britain and its social undercurrents, both dark and light.

BOOK RATING: The Story 4 / 5 (but it’s in the detail not the action!);  The Writing 4 / 5

~ Tony Ziemek is the lead editor of Ed Fresh Editorial Services.

Disclosure: If you click a link in this post and make a purchase, I may earn a small commission.

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BOOK DETAILS: Black Bread White Beer by Niven Govinden ( Amazon | Booktopia | Kobobooks )

Genre: Literature, Drama

Author Information: Niven Govinden was born in East Sussex in 1973 and then educated at Goldsmiths College where he studied film. We Are The New Romantics was published in 2004. His second novel Graffiti My Soul was published in January 2007.

Niven, who was described as ‘one to watch’ when he released his second novel Graffiti My Soul,  took the bold step of signing with HarperCollins imprint The Friday Project as they were able to bypass the usual 9-12 month publishing cycle to release a digital original within a few weeks, coinciding with the release of Black Bread White Beer in India. This is a rare example in literary fiction of an ebook leading the way for the publication of the print edition.

Fiction Uncovered

Now in its third year, Fiction Uncovered is the annual promotion that seeks out the best of British fiction. Black Bread White Beer is one of the eight titles have been selected for the 2013 list and they will be part of a summer promotion supported by bookstores across the UK.

Other reviews of Black Bread White Beer: Bookmunch; Random Things Through My Letterbox; Parrish Lantern; By the Book Reviews

* Receiving this title free from Harper Collins did not impact the expression of honest opinions in the review above.