During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, I stopped reading. I couldn’t focus and spent far too much time doomscrolling. When I finally picked up a book a few months later, I felt a sense of relief and fiction has been my solace ever since. Nothing has brought me greater pleasure during never-ending national lockdowns than discovering a superb new author.
J. A. Mensah is one such writer. I read her debut novel, Castles from Cobwebs (winner of the inaugural NorthBound Book Award in 2019, part of the Northern Writers’ Awards), with great enthusiasm, barely pausing to do much else.
The book tells the story of Imani, a foundling who was rescued as a baby and raised by nuns on a Northumbrian island. As the only black person in her remote community, Imani is acutely aware that she is physically different. The sisters occasionally eye her with suspicion and are quick to accuse her of wrongdoing. One day, Imani overhears Sister Magdalene say: ‘Those people / her people / they worship…darkness…ritual sacrifice…kill people…severed body parts to their unclean Gods.’ Full of questions and a fractured sense of identity, Imani turns to her only friend, Harold, and her mysterious shadow, Amarie, to help make sense of the world. Then, aged 19, Imani receives a phone call informing her that her biological mother has died. She journeys to Accra in Ghana for the funeral and so begins her attempt to piece together her origin story.
Displacement is a significant theme in Castles from Cobwebs, and is most keenly felt in passages depicting Imani’s childhood. Her early years are spent searching for representation, which she finds briefly in a magazine she hides in her bedroom. Her only real comfort is Amarie, whose ethereal presence gives the novel a touch of mysticism. Who – or, more importantly, what – is Amarie? It feels part ghost story, part coming of age tale, part sprawling family saga. The novel further addresses issues of race and belonging as Imani explores her Ghanaian heritage, continuing to feel like an outsider who is missing something fundamental to her soul. This sense of disconnection is prevalent throughout the novel with Mensah exploring friction between family members, communities and even cultures.
Castles from Cobwebs is split into sections and follows a series of interweaving timelines: young Imani in Northumberland, 19-year-old Imani in Ghana, Imani as a student in America and an older Imani who returns to the convent after an incident. This makes for a slightly confusing read at times and, in certain instances, the narrative is unclear. Having said that, this doesn’t undermine the book and, by the end of the novel, many of the threads I initially struggled to understand eventually came together. Perhaps the author intended for the reader to feel foggy and muddled. Much like Imani, we must navigate our way through memory, experience and other people’s often contradictory stories and secrets.
This is a big novel. I don’t mean in terms of word count, rather that Mensah doesn’t shy away from tough subjects, including the mother/daughter relationship, the different roles women assume in each other’s lives (biological parent, adoptive caregiver, aunt, elder), heritage, religion, faith and, through the inclusion of Amarie, good and evil. Who is ‘good’ and what does that mean?
Mensah has an immense talent for place writing. From the bustling night market in Accra and the village of Dosu to the rugged Northumberland coastline, she invokes a clear sense of the environment the characters inhabit. Each location feels like a supporting character and we learn as much through their descriptions as we do from dialogue or Imani’s self-examination. There’s so much to praise about this novel and Imani is a well-written and complex central character.
This is a well-crafted debut, and one that makes me eager to see what the author delivers next. One thing’s for sure, though. Mensah is an extraordinary literary talent and Castles from Cobwebs is a thoroughly recommended read.
By Emma Yates-Badley, Literary Editor
Castles from Cobwebs by J.A. Mensah is published by Saraband and is available to buy now.