Yvonne Battle-Felton

Dialogue Books, £14.99

Review by Tomiwa Folorunso

Yvonne Battle-Felton’s debut, Remembered, longlisted for the 2019 Women’s Prize For Fiction, has been compared to Toni Morrison’s seminal 1987 novel, Beloved. And rightly so, since both are powerful, unapologetic, revealing works of historical fiction about the legacy of the Atlantic slave trade with the voices of women at their centre.

Beloved is dedicated to the "sixty million and more"; sixty refers to the lowest estimated number of Africans who died because of American slavery, while the "more" reminds us of the uncountable survivors and future generations that were affected in so many different ways.

Each one and more of those sixty million people have a unique and personal story that deserves to be remembered, and Battle-Felton's lingers long in the memory.

The novel opens in 1910 and Spring’s son, Edward, lies badly beaten, close to death, on a Philadelphia hospital bed. He has seemingly driven a streetcar into a department store window, an act of defiance that has sparked city wide race riots. As Spring sits by his bedside, she’s accompanied by the ghost of her strong and reslilient dead sister, Tempe.

Spring opens a hand-stitched mahogany book full of newspaper clippings, passed down from her own mother, to tell Edward the story of how he came to be, in the hope that by breaking the silence she has maintained during his life, it will somehow bring him home to her.

"Most of what I’m about to tell you ain’t in no history book, no newspaper article, no encyclopedia. There’s a whole heap of stories don’t ever get told," she tells her son.

We are transported back two generations to Pennsylvania in 1843 where Ella, a free black girl, is stolen and taken to the Maryland farm of the slave-owning Walker family. The farm is cursed. No babies survive past infancy, if they are even conceived, to provide Walker with a stable work force. Ella is captured as a "breeder" in the hope that she will break the curse, and her story then becomes Spring’s. We follow her to Philadelphia, where even after the Emancipation Act has been passed or, “you come from free people” as Spring tells Edward, you are never truly free. The ghost of Tempe is an important presence in Felton’s story, a reminder that no matter how much hope and love you may grow up surrounded by, trauma passes down family lines, constantly resting on your shoulder, a haunting presence until you confront it.

Remembered is an uncomfortable read and Felton, an African American who lives in the UK, does not shy away from detailing the abuse and violations that slaves – particularly the women – are subjected to at the hands of their white masters. I am reminded of the footage of Eric Garner, the African American man who died in 2014 after being arrested for a minor misdemeanor and put in a chokehold by New York police; I am unable to look away but haunted nonetheless. This comparison draws an obvious question, one that Felton also confronts us with: has slavery really ended in the United States?

Other movements, such as Black Lives Matter, #SayHerName – which remembers women and girls killed by police – and MeToo, have grown in response to the treatment of black bodies and lives by the people and authorities that are supposed to keep them safe. Those of us whose roots cannot be easily traced, or who live in a part of the world that oppressed our ancestors, often find ourselves turning to the past, taking comfort in our histories so we can situate ourselves in the present.

And so Spring's opening of that mahogany book seems like a mother’s last act of desperation and regret, or perhaps wishful thinking, that if she had told Edward about his past sooner he never would have left home for her to need to bring him back.