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Diasporas, Cultures of Mobilities, ‘Race’ 2

Sarah Barbour
David Howard
Thomas Lacroix
et al.

Intersecting Identities

Diana Evans’s 26a and The Wonder: Space, Place and Affect

Suzanne Scafe


This essay focuses on Evans’s detailed and meticulously realist representations of place in her first two novels, 26a and The Wonder, and argues that, underlying these realistically presented localities are instabilities, the narrative’s use of the magical and fantastical, which create instabilities in the text and serve self-consciously to challenge routine distinctions between self and other, native and foreigner, home and homelessness. The identities constructed are unselfconsciously plural, constituted of shifting, or colliding, geographies and temporalities whose significance nonetheless rests in the present of the novel and not in an extra textual historicity. Although centring on stories of loss and dislocation, the narrative creates affective spaces of commitment that, despite being also configured by loss and sadness, present the possibility of hope. The detailed attention to the specifics of place are evidence of Evans’s interest in how characters belong, rather than on the need to belong. The essay demonstrates the narratives’ privileging of unbelonging and movement, though within its carefully constructed spaces of commitment constituted by the emotional ties of individuals to each other. The spaces within which national, cultural and individual identities emerge is, in these texts, fluid, irreducible and integrally connected to globally enmeshed pasts.

Texte intégral

1One of the defining characteristics of Diana Evans’s writing style is her repeated and seamless interweaving of the real and the imagined. In her fiction meticulously realist descriptions of people, places, and historical events are continually unsettled by fantastic or non-realist representation, whose effect is to destabilise apparently fixed identities and locations. Her narratives disturb the spatially defined relationship between the imperial centre and its margins, the colonial centre and its imagined outposts: they disrupt temporal distinctions and linear chronologies. As Evans herself has said, her interest in language is in its potential to be ‘twisted or slightly crooked or bent’ (Evaristo 2005: 33). In this chapter essay I argue that the text’s instabilities, which on occasion ambush interpretations of otherwise conventional narratives, serve to challenge routine distinctions between self and other, native and foreigner, home and homelessness. Evans’s fiction self-consciously avers easily identifiable symbolic or historical significance, and the identities—cultural, national or individual—that her fiction narrates are complex and hybrid in ways that do not easily fit ‘any hierarchical or binary structuring of social antagonism’ (Bhabha 1994: 140). Her characters and the narrative’s locations are resolutely positioned on the borders of the metropolitan centre: the Grand Union Canal in Westbourne Park; the untidy edges of the now fashionable Notting Hill; Neasden, and other unromantic North West London suburbs; the small rural towns of mid-twentieth-century Jamaica and Cuba. The characters on which I focus inhabit simultaneously more than one temporality and more than one geographical location: the instabilities that her narrative privileges are both productive in their interrogation of fixed hierarchies and binarisms, but also dangerous, the novels suggest, in their threat to a necessary and grounding equilibrium.

2The disavowal of the symbolic, of any gesture towards national allegory in her writing, has led critic John McLeod (2010) to describe her first novel, 26a, as ‘post-racial’. This is in the context of a re-positioning of black British writing that distinguishes the work of contemporary writers such as Evans from post-war literary production, commonly defined as ‘Black British writing’ (46): the concerns of the latter were, he argues, related to the formation of Black British identity and the necessary transformation of British society (47). In contrast ‘contemporary black writing of Britain’, with ‘black’ used as an adjective that modifies ‘writing’ rather than as an adjunct of ‘British’, ‘is preoccupied with strictly local affairs and does not necessarily regard the wider challenge of reinventing Britain as a key or primary task’ (47). In addition this work is ‘less primarily concerned with the subjectivity of black Britons’, which is not to say that these writers are not concerned with race or with nation, but that their concerns with both are not inevitably linked to the emergence of Black British selfhood (47). Other critics such as Laura Moss read fictional representations of cultural difference in contemporary black British writing outside the contestatory binarisms of the critical strategies that have been used to frame that difference. In her discussion of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, Moss argues that in Smith’s novel hybridity is ‘an increasingly ordinary locus in changing postcolonial contexts’: it is neither an ‘in-between space’ produced in colonial relations nor ‘an exception to a concept of identity based on some kind of unity, or even unity in diversity’ (12). Like McLeod, she argues that the literature of the ‘new generation’ of black or postcolonial writers does not present a spectacle of the ‘reinvented’ nation, but a ‘rediscovery of the ordinary. That ordinary includes a recognition of history, a negotiation of a mixing of cultures, races, languages and an acknowledgement of the politics of everyday life...‘everyday racism’, overt racism and violence included’ (13–14). While both critics usefully suggest the necessity to develop a critical language that reads ‘contemporary black writing’ in terms other than ‘race’ and a preoccupation with ‘Blackness’, both approaches perhaps inevitably begin with and use the structures of difference that they wish to move beyond. ‘Postracial’ for example, as well as proving to be historically premature, defines its subject in terms of race, and within some of the oppositions that racialised discourses construct. Of Evans’s twins in 26a McLeod writes: ‘They are our twins too: they may remind us of ourselves—literally, not metaphorically’ (48). The unfortunately dichotomised ‘us’ and ‘them’ seem to fall within rather than to transcend the structures of difference that these new definitions and literary classifications seek to disrupt.

3I propose that a reading of space, place and their affects in Evans’s fiction can provide a way of recognising both her fiction’s significant reconfigurations of a national imaginary and its attempt to do so outside of racialised discourse, even as her characters’ racial or cultural identities are inescapable elements of their construction, and of the narrative’s meaning. I argue that through the preoccupation with space and place, her novels do indeed write of the nation as, in Homi Bhabha’s words, ‘an obscure and ubiquitous form of living the locality of culture. This locality is more around temporality than about historicity; a form of living that is more complex than ‘community’; more symbolic than ‘society’’ (140). I am taking Homi Bhabha’s odd, ambiguous phrase ‘obscure and ubiquitous’ to mean the ordinary, everyday but unrepresented (obscured in representation) practices of living within the margins of a nation. Specific scenes in the novels are wrapped around historical events—the wedding and death of Princess Diana, the 1958 Notting Hill riots, the transformation of that area of West London including the building of the Westway, at the time the ‘biggest road project London had ever seen’ (Evans 2010: 96)—but these events do not represent an attempt to fix and make visible ‘national time-space’ (Bhabha 1994: 143) or its production of national identities. Rather, in its focus on the specifics of locality, it constructs identities that are unselfconsciously plural, constituted of shifting, or colliding geographies and temporalities but whose significance nonetheless rests in the present of the novel, and not in an extra-textual historicity.

4Although the turn to affect, itself a return to and rethinking of phenomenology, has significantly transformed approaches to cultural studies and all aspects of feminist theory and criticism, affect is, as several critics have noted, a notoriously slippery concept. It is, for most cultural theorists, more than simply emotion: as Hemmings notes, ‘Affect broadly refers to states of being, rather than to their manifestation or interpretation as emotions’ (551). It is, for many theorists, she argues, ‘thinking through the body in a non-essentialist way that remains faithful to many different levels and modes of bodily experience’ (553), and is thus used to describe responses and effects that are more than just cognitive, but are forms of thinking nevertheless. As Seigworth and Gregg argue, more explicitly, ‘affect and cognition are never fully separable—if for no other reason than thought is itself a body, embodied’ (2–3). In his examination of the production of affect in contemporary fiction, however, Derek Attridge is less concerned to rely on ‘any principled distinction among the terms ‘emotion’, ‘feeling’ and ‘affect’’ than to investigate how literature performs affect, its capacity to ‘engage powerfully and subtly with the extraordinary complexity of emotional responses, in which the psychic and the somatic are so inextricably entwined’ (330). For Attridge, the important distinction to be made is one between feelings experienced ‘directly in response to events and objects in our lives’ (330) and feelings constructed in language. An affective artwork is an ‘event’ that brings the other into the field of the same continually provoking surprise, admiration and wonder at the work’s production of these and other affects (332). Affect performed in language provides an experience that replicates modes of thinking and feeling in the non-literary domain.

5Affect is often theorised as being produced in the encounter between subjects and between subjects and objects, across time and space, ‘a body’s belonging to a world of encounters or; a world’s belonging to a body of encounters but also, in non-belonging through all those far sadder (de) compositions’ (Seigworth and Gregg 2010: 2). The interconnection of ‘the body’ and ‘the world’ thus allows for an understanding of space and place as both producing and being produced by affect: space itself is, in such encounters, constituted by affect. Space, Thrift argues ‘is not just a series of interdigitated worlds touching each other’; it can be thought of as being ‘constructed out of a spatial swirl of affects’ that crucially structure geographies and form identities (Thrift 2006: 143). He emphasises the transformative process of ‘worlds touching each other’, where ‘all kinds of things [are] brought into relation with one another by this universe of spaces through a continuous and largely involuntary process of encounter’ (139). Although space is often represented as a philosophical concept that includes abstract and metaphorical space as well as a physical and material locality and place used simply to refer to locality and characterised in specific terms (Massey 1994: 7), locality as place intersects and is indivisible from space. As Sarah Upstone argues, place ‘is just one manifestation of space: its representation in intensely physical forms which create sites of manifestation’ (3). In the analysis that follows, I demonstrate the importance in Evans’s fiction of locality and of locality’s interconnection with other places and times, with ‘inside’ and ‘outside’, the distant, the global and the near. I argue that the swirl of affects that deepens representations of the spatial and the temporal, allows the narrative to resonate beyond the immediate and particular to the national and the global. In terms of the narrative’s specific affects, I focus on the way in which the language of the narrative performs feelings of loss and melancholia but also of connectivity and hope.

626a is set in Neasden, North West London, an unlovely suburb whose relation with central London Evans describes in the following way:

Neasden was like the high heel at the bottom of Italy. It was what the city stepped on to be sexy. London needed its Neasdens to make the Piccadilly lights, the dazzling Strand, the pigeons at Trafalgar Square and the queen waving from her Buckingham balcony seem exciting all that way away, over acres of rail tracks and miles and miles of traffic. (9)

7The family’s experience of London’s iconic commercial centres is of being crushed or lost in its undersides and margins: in the bedding department of the Oxford Street branch of Debenhams or under a fairground horse in Leicester Square. The twins’ journey into London heightens their separation from the centre. As if to heighten their alienation, once underground, of course, all they can see of the city is themselves, reflected in the windows of the tube: ‘Georgia and Bessi saw themselves in the world of the black windows, fuzzy girls in bright tops, their lives getting quicker’ (128–9). Neasden, by contrast is the family’s centre. It more comfortably houses them: ‘Neasden was easier. A little hilly place next to a river and a motorway with nodding trees and one stubby row of shops’ (9), and like most London suburbs it was once a semi-rural area, a refuge for, amongst others, a monied class. Gladstone Park, to which the novel repeatedly returns, was once owned by the family of Robert Augustus Finch, a member of the Company of Moneyers of the Royal Mint. Thus, as suggested by the novel’s reimagining of Prime Minster Gladstone’s visits to the Finch’s house in the grounds of what is now a public park, Neasden has been linked to a more splendid past, one that connected it to the centre, not as its ‘heel’ but as integral to its commercial wealth and splendour. Georgia regularly imagines herself at the centre of a narrative of this imperial past: ‘she and Bessi would knock on the door of the house and one of Gladstone’s great grandchildren might open it, or better still, Gladstone himself looking sweetly ancient’ (11). This encounter across time and space and the memory of Gladstone’s sweet demeanour, brings the Victorian Prime Minister into the twins’ world, where he belongs and is accommodated. He is part of who Georgia is, a student of British history, a resident of Neasden and a great grandchild of Empire. His presence secures their feelings of belonging and security, of being at home in North West London.

8The house (26 Waifer Avenue) is constituted by the global and by its inhabitants’ connections to different temporalities, such as the currents of capital that take Aubrey to Nigeria, and in so doing extend the administrative structures of colonialism that perpetuate economic dependencies by safeguarding European investments. For both Aubrey and his Nigerian wife Ida, escape in opposite directions, and their meeting in Lagos, a location that was home to neither, promised freedom and possibility. Within their Neasden house however, both characters inhabit different worlds and in this way the novel disrupts the notion perpetuated in colonialist narratives of the home as a private, idealised domestic space kept free from the ‘outside’ by the efforts of a compliant wife (Upstone 2009: 120). Rather, in this novel, the home is shown to be experienced in relation to the economic and political life of an outer public, economic and cultural domain. 26 Waifer Avenue, with its intentionally provocative mixture of Edo masks and mild English watercolours reflects the dislocation of its characters: Aubrey and Ida were ‘colliding, silently, through geography’ (38).

  • 1 Citing the 1991 study by Malcolm Cross, Harbhajan Brar and Mike McLeod, Irene Pérez-Fernández notes (...)

9The house itself reproduces melancholic affects, reflecting its inhabitants’ feelings of dislocation in the present, the result of unrealised freedoms, and of the intrusion of other worlds and times. Whereas in Freud’s definition, mourning involves letting go of a defined lost object, melancholia, while also a response to loss and as such sharing the characteristics of mourning, is distinguishable in that it holds fast to that which is lost, absorbs it into itself and does not let go. In part, Freud suggests, this is because the loss that produces feelings of melancholy is not always clearly defined. It is comprised of something more than just the lost object: it is the ‘loss of a more ideal kind’ whose origin and character is ‘withdrawn from consciousness’ (Freud 1957: 245). Ida’s mother, Nne Nne and her Aruwa village seem to be the focus of Ida’s feelings of loss and ‘non-belonging (Seigworth and Gregg 2010: 2): she communes with her more, it would seem, than with members of her present family. However, the narrative suggests that she has lost more than just her mother and her village. Whereas Ida’s paternal grandmother, in whose steps she was encouraged to follow, was ‘the only woman in Aruwa history to shrink the world, to have made it alone to Lagos and come back twenty-three years later rich and self-made, smoking a cigar, wearing scarlet lip-gloss and cackling...’ (28), Ida’s melancholic response to her loss results in what might be defined as ‘pathological mourning’ (Freud 1957: 250). Instead of raging against what might be wrong with her present location, she clings obsessively to the Aruwa from which she desired to escape. In contrast then, 26a, the twins’ loft bedroom, becomes a refuge against the dark, melancholy house. Although Evans’s use of G+B (Georgia and Bessi) playfully signals a contrast between Ida and Aubrey’s cathexes and the loft, a bright, hybrid space for a new British identity and one that is not rooted in loss, this seemingly idealised space is not an alternative to the messy, contradictory spaces from which individual identities emerge. Like the house, it cannot free itself from the outside spaces that shape its identity. For Bessi the loft is the sign of a life that is too small and too closely connected to the melancholy of a dysfunctional house. She bestrides the map of the world she lays out in the loft and chooses St. Lucia, a place where she might be free and fulfilled. Some years later, her younger sister chooses Trinidad and their choice of Caribbean Creole societies affirms and extends the narrative’s suggestion that being mixed—though not simply and reductively biracial—is routine and normal, in localised areas of London such as Neasden, and in some parts of the world such as the Caribbean, where it is a characteristic of mainstream society.1

10Critical responses to 26a have centred on both the structural significance of twinning in the narrative (McLeod 2010: 48;) and on Evans’s use of the twins to signify the complexities or ‘problems’ of the ‘bicultural, biracial condition of [her] protagonists’ (Pérez-Fernández 2012: 292; Cuder-Domínguez 2009: 280). Cuder-Domínguez and Jane Bryce also focus on the significance to the narrative of Nigerian myths of twinning, though again as a metaphor for ‘ [B] iracialism’ (Bryce 2008: 60). In 26a the Edo myth that the narrative uses certainly contributes to its depiction of the ‘world of the twins, [as] a little bit spooky and magical’ (Evans 2005: 33). In the story that their grandfather tells the twins and their sisters during their brief stay in Aruwa, Nigeria, twins are a curse, ‘The children of devils’. He continues, ‘And they had to be destroyed. So this is what they did. They took the second twin... and burnt it’ (63). In the myth of origin that opens the novel, Evans revises the Edo myth, the function of which is to point to the combination of tragic vulnerability and fear that is attached to their difference, and relocates it on the North Circular or A406, a noisy road that ‘raged across the bottom of their street’ (9) and which slices through Neasden. This highly symbolic narrative moment again constructs an affective encounter, where the temporal and spatial dimensions of life and death bleed into each other. The twins’ birth-in-death is likened to a small wild creature crossing the A406, and is used to prefigure not just Georgia’s death but the inevitability of loss. As the three year old Georgia is whisked down the North Circular in an ambulance, Bessi feels that ‘strange sinking back towards the road’ (4): the road, in her young mind, is both the site of her origin and the location of her home. It has also attached to it feelings of tragedy and foreboding.

11While, as in the example cited above, both narratives, 26a and Evans’s second novel The Wonder interleave past and the present, locations and traditions separated by thousands of miles, and real and imagined worlds, for some of her characters these temporal and spatial differences are experienced as disjunctures, as cracks into which they fall. Although the novels do not posit the importance of rootedness, neither do they privilege fixed identities. In both texts, spatial metaphors—gaps, cracks and other figures of dislocation and separation—are used to express the characters’ fragility, a fragility that is in different ways connected to place and displacement. Culture and community are, in these primarily realist novels, important contexts for the realisation of character; at the same time, however, all identities—individual cultural, national—are represented as more ‘complex than “community” and society’ (Bhabha 1994: 140). Ida spends most of her days both inside 26 Waifer Avenue, and in her home village of Aruwa: while in the house she talks to her mother Nne Nne in Edo. She imagines, as she sews an elaborate dressing gown made of West African fabrics bought in a fabric shop in Harlesden, that she is the machine needle, taking the road back to her village, a journey that would ‘remind her of who she was and where she had come from’ (40). Paradoxically, however, this experience of synchronic temporalities fixes her in one space, making her unable to engage with her present and fixing her in an idealised time and place to which she no longer belongs.

12In contrast, during the period of their relocation to Nigeria, the twins’ memories of Neasden recede and Georgia can conclude: ‘For home had a way of shifting, of changing shape and temperature. Home was homeless. It could exist anywhere, because its only substance was familiarity’ (54). Ida on the other hand cannot manage such an unstable world, with its emphasis on a ‘locality [that] is more around temporality’ rather than one place that is fixed in time and space (Bhabha 1994: 40): ‘For her, home was not homeless; it was one space, one heat, one tree’ (97). The space between continents that she inhabits is thick with affect: the hold that Nigeria has on Ida and that fixes her in this in-between space is unproductive and imprisoning, preventing her from inhabiting the locality that is now her home: ‘Ida gave the impression... of someone who was always leaving and had never fully arrived (18). Such thick affect clouds her vision and, like the warm ice-cream and the mushy dinner, stewed until it can be poured, this absence of borders threatens her with dissolution. Spatial metaphors are also used by Aubrey’s brother to describe their mother’s dementia, ‘She never came back from where she went’ (95), and in The Wonder referring to Nijinsky’s mental collapse and prefiguring his own, Antoney explains his ‘theory’ of lost identities: ‘Because probably, if you could remember the exact place where you’d lost your head, the right address, the turning back to it, then maybe it was possible to make yourself unmad’ (70). Contrary to Antoney’s ‘theory’, however, and Ida’s imagined returns, the narrative suggests that it is the unassimilated intrusion of that ‘address’ into other places, the inability to hold different localities together in one integrated, hybrid space, that causes ‘madness’.

13For Ida and Georgia Nigeria is the locus of grief, separation and loss. Ida’s first journey back to Aruwa merely renews her affiliation to her village and her sense of loss on returning to Neasden. In a section of the narrative that is focalized by the twins, however, the family’s subsequent three year relocation to Nigeria is described as ‘the emigration’ (57), and it is that movement that proves fatal for the already fragile Georgia, whose three year old self had already been broken and repaired. On their return, Aubrey’s mother insists that they wash all the African flies from their clothes because, ‘Flies in Africa have diseases’ (86). This image of a disease carrying insect as a sign of African otherness and difference, and of Judith’s unreasoned prejudice, is used in the narrative to signal the spatial dimension of Georgia’s breakdown and suicide. The most intense moments of difference experienced by the twins while in Sekon are the story that the grandfather tells and the encounter with the cockroach. Evans’s account of the latter is full of nightmarish, sinister magic, invoking fear, horror, the twins’ vulnerability and of course their feelings of cultural difference, even in the context of their luxurious ex-patriot compound which is nevertheless alive with monstrous insects:

Moths were birds. Birds were harlequin bats. The spiders there were bigger than incredible, with muscled legs and visibly volatile eyes... They strutted across the radiant grass with handbags and sunglasses and filthy feet and walked all over the house, taking siestas behind doors and under pillows... And cockroaches. The insect dinosaur.

14One of these insect dinosaurs fixes itself just below Bessi’s collarbone and refuses to move until Sedrick the watchman lifts it with his hand. His movements in this scene—his raised hand is aimed at her chest—are predatory and like the cockroach, he contaminates and is contaminated. Like the insects, he appears out of nowhere and like ‘a monkey and a dog’, so called by Ida after he is caught peering at Bel in the shower, he scents the presence of others (57). When Georgia returns to England, her own, later sexual assault by Sedrick is remembered through the figure of the cockroach, whose dirty, sticky touch is also Sedrick’s. Like the unwashed flies that threaten Judith’s England, the cockroach persists in Georgia’s imagination, fatally reconfiguring her encounter with Nigeria and signifying her experience of abuse. She sees cockroaches all over North West London; in the snow where one grows to the size of a rat and repeats Sedrick’s words to her; crawling on her bedspread; in her flat in Tottenham. Its resting on the space near Bessi’s chest becomes a defining encounter that makes Sekon the place of her ruin. The space she inhabits, with its traces of Nigeria, is constituted by fear and loss. Whereas Bessi, with her ‘wings and ease’ can travel and take with her only good places and positively affective objects—the evergreen tree and the garden—Georgia, like Ida, is lost in space (145). The object that had caused her loss of self is withdrawn from consciousness and the violence that should have been directed against that object/person is now directed against herself. Even before her suicide, she has already experienced her own shrinking and disappearance; she has already overcome the instinct to survive.

15While location or locality is significant to events in 26a, the specifics of place and time are more central to the meaning of Evans’s second novel, which is not to suggest that the narrative of The Wonder attaches to 1958 the kind of historic resonance of Andrea Levy’s 1948, where, in her novel Small Island the everyday events of that year quite literally signal the ‘advent of the epochal’ (Bhabha 1994: 141). Rather, the choice of 1958 West London as the moment and place of arrival allows the narrative to speak about social and cultural transformation beyond its relevance to individual characters, while still maintaining a focus on the temporal and the provisional, rather than the symbolic dimensions of locality. The emptying and refilling of the city’s spaces provide the contexts for the novel’s affective, transforming encounters, and effect a bringing together of people in what Thrift, in his essay on the city, describes as ‘manifold combinations’ that are both uncomfortable and benign. They are ‘the result of juxtapositions which are, in some sense, dysfunctional, which jar and scrape and rend’ and are predicated on distrust, evidence of what has been framed as ‘a problem of alienation’ and which often emerge from crises of identity and belonging (Thrift 2008: 209). At the same time, these very juxtapositions and ‘manifold combinations’ produce affective encounters, manifestations of ‘another kind of temporal politics... a politics that amplifies the sense that around every corner is an opportunity— to open up and take hold of the future, to endow it with values like care and compassion, to value expectancy’ (214). These moments can otherwise be defined as a politics of hope, ‘a kind of thirst or hunger for the future’ (214).

16The novel is structured around urban encounters that are both hostile and hopeful. Like 26a, The Wonder is in part an exploration of family relations and begins with the son, twenty-five year old Lucas reflecting on what, according to an article he had come across ‘in a psychology magazine last week at the Indian newsagent,’ might be a decisive moment in his life: choices made in the twenty-fifth year can, according to ‘Dr. Glenda someone’ lead either to fulfilled potential or crisis (13). While not entirely believing this formula, as the ironic tone of the narration implies, he senses a moment of crisis and more strongly than ever feels a need to recover something lost in the past. This desire for the past is not only rooted in feelings of melancholy and loss but is also motivated by hope and expectancy: ‘He was afraid of tipping the watery balance of the known world. Yet lately he had yearned’ (12). He wanted to sit down with his father and ask, ‘What did you do when you got here, and didn’t know which way to go’ (13). His search for and encounter with his father’s life does, we are led to believe, bring possibility and hope, though what he discovers about his father Antoney is that, like Ida, the instabilities and losses of his own life had proved overwhelming and finally tragic. Yet The Wonder is also and significantly about personal, social and cultural transformation: the title of the novel, the transformed name of Brian, one of the members of the Midnight Ballet, signals the transformative potential that the narrative values, and is reflective of its own performed affects—achieved though the intersection of the real and the magical—of strangeness, surprise and wonder, as well as sadness and loss. It is a complex, non-linear and self-reflexive novel that also explores the identity of art. In its detailed depictions of Antoney’s struggle to be a dancer and his desire to sacrifice everything for his art but at the same time his need for the grounding that love and the care of others provides, the novel investigates what it means to be an artist. Its use of Riley’s biography of Antoney Matheus allows the narrative explicitly to examine its processes of narration: one of Riley’s fantastic, fictionalised endings is used in place of the novel’s own, interrogating assumptions about narrative integrity, and creating a hybrid textual space that disturbs the boundaries of the real and the imagined, as well as life and death. The Antoney that emerges in Riley’s account is more mythical than real: his later life and death—if indeed he dies—unavailable to conventional narration.

17The areas in which the novel is set—Ladbroke Grove, Notting Hill and West London—are radically transformed within the space of the novel. Evans makes several references to the specifics of place, to the demolition of many of the old properties in this area and their replacement with ‘boxy council housing’ (49), and to the building of the Westway, which, like the A406 reflects the noisy untidiness that intersects many of London’s suburbs or fringes its more desirable urban areas. The Wonder, however, is also a narrative about abstract and metaphorical space—migratory spaces, margins, and spaces of psychological growth. It is concerned with what Middleton and Woods term ‘representational space’, a space that is charged with emotional and mythical meaning’ (284). It is space that is reimagined by the characters who restructure and repopulate broken down and empty locations, both with their memories of other places and pasts and their commitment to possibility.

18When, in 1958, Florence and her son Antoney arrive in West London from Annotto Bay, a small coastal town in Jamaica, the ‘soot-blackened’ houses in Ladbroke Grove were so derelict that Florence, though she had neither dreamt of an England whose streets were paved with gold, nor even of a ‘mother-country’, could not believe she was in England. Characteristically, locality in the novel is given specific and precise dimensions, even as the characters’ own individual experience of place and space heightens its affective and metaphorical significance. As in 26a, the most significant spaces are the insides of buildings: the boat house on the Grand Union Canal, St. Bernard’s church, the interior of Riley’s flat that houses a version of Antoney’s past and, though only briefly, the interior of the rooms in the first house that Antoney occupied with his mother, Florence. In The Wonder, the Notting Hill riots, which occur soon after they arrive in England, are experienced by Florence and the teenage Antoney from inside, where they are confined for four days: the narrative summarises their social significance, but for these characters, the significance of the riots is personal and domestic. Although their encounter with violence is limited to watching from the window, where amid the occasional flare of petrol bombs they see ‘clear, shimmering dusks in which the sun sank down like molten jelly behind the black slate roofs’ (61); the streets, following ‘the return to an impermanent peace’ are transformed after that encounter, and become constituted by fear and hatred (61). As Antoney walks along Portobello Road, Talbot Road and through the ‘tense back-street’s leading up to Westbourne Park that Sheryl told him to avoid because of “white trouble”’, he feels as if he has the ‘ominous sensation of passing through a series of tunnels, the true ground level existing not at your feet but somewhere above your head’ (60, 59).

19This ‘white trouble’ can be characterised as a contest over national identity, itself often ‘a felt dislocation between the past and the present of a place’ and one that reflects a ‘deeply essentialist and internalist way of thinking about a place and its character’ (Massey 1995: 182, 183). For the white youths, the black presence in Notting Hill disturbs their sense of national identity, one which while drawing on concepts of tradition is, paradoxically, fixed in a present—Notting Hill’s present whiteness—that does not, for example, take into account the gypsy communities that, in the mid-nineteenth-century existed on the fringes of the grand housing that is now, almost a century later, bordering on derelict. In addition, of course, the wealth of Empire that made the grandeur of these houses possible also brought residents of its colonies back to the metropolitan centre, effecting a claim on that history. Against the menace of whiteness and the area’s grey dereliction, Antoney finds the abandoned, crumbling church, fictionally named St. Bernard’s, in Powis Square, where he encounters the choreographer Oscar Day and the sounds of a luminous clash of cultures and artists: Nijinsky, Mendelssohn, Nina Simone, Paul Robeson, Ray Charles and ‘an Egyptian flute player Oscar had bought a record from in Alexandria’ (66):

The church, tucked away behind a gated courtyard at the junction of Talbot Road and Powis Square, was situated in the heart of one of the poorest and most neglected wards, as yet showing scan sign of its approaching rise to glitz and fortune. This was not the kind of place you would come to buy a psychedelic toaster or a leather watering can. This was not where you would stop for aubergine tea. It was a last place, an only place. It was tumbling down and covered in coal-fire soot. Rats and mice stalked the streets, feasting amid the demolition scrap piles left by the cranes of ‘58... Those five-tiered terraces overlooking Colville Square had no conception at this time of their ice-cream futures, but were irritably inhabited by multiple family units. (49)

20Evans uses the description of the area’s past to complicate the gentrification, in the novel’s present, of this area of West London. St. Bernard’s church is loosely based on the Tabernacle church, built in the nineteenth-century and emblematic at that time, and of the area’s upper middle-class ambitions. By the early twentieth-century, however, both the church and Colville, the surrounding area of five storied houses to which the novel refers, had begun to decline, and by the 1950s Powis Square became known for its centrality to the slum empire of the infamous slum landlord, Peter Rachman, also known as the only landlord in the area who would let property to black West Indian migrants such as Antoney and Florence. Its housing of the Midnight Ballet, the troupe with which Antoney performed in the 1960s and early ‘70s of the novel, reflects The Tabernacle’s significance during this period and later as a space where Black cultural performance and community organisation were used to challenge claims to national and cultural superiority and spatially affirmed notions of origins.

21As the novel demonstrates, and as Doreen Massey argues, locations can be thought of as temporal as well as spatial:

[They are] always already a product of wider contacts; the local is always already a product in part of ‘global’ forces, where global in this context refers not necessarily to the planetary scale, but to the geographical beyond, the world beyond the place itself. (Massey 1995: 183)

22In this novel, the ‘global’ is distilled in the church’s interior, where Antoney feels, for the first time since his arrival in England, that he ‘belonged’ (66). Home in this sense is not simply location; it is a socially and an affectively constituted space. It is home for Antoney also because, in part, it echoes his first encounter with dance, itself an experience of diasporic currents involving a meeting with the African American dancer Katherine Dunham who introduced him to Shango, the Yoruba god of thunder and lightning. The idea of Shango shapes his sense of who he might become and provides a location and a purpose for his ‘quality of lightness’, the impression he gives of his feet never touching the ground, and his seeming to inhabit a world of dreams (51).

23Thrift uses a vivid example of how, during the period of Empire in India, the circulation of personal objects by members of the English middle classes to and from India created deep emotional ties between separated individuals. As well as serving better to administer Empire by allowing ‘a series of emotionally-charged mechanisms of colonial identity formation to be set up’, gift giving as well as regular circuits of departure and return also constructed between and within two geographically distant territories, ‘affective spaces of commitment’ (Thrift 2006: 144, 143). Such an example of how affective space might be produced has strong resonances in the narrative of The Wonder, where Evans represents several such scenes of spatio-temporal connectivity, and where specific images circulating in the narrative, are used to perform its affects. Images such as the toy bus, given to Lucas by Antoney, construct emotional ties beyond those between father and son. The gift of the bus evokes Antoney’s memorable journey, made with his father from Annotto Bay to the Carib Theatre, Kingston, and is a reminder of his origins as a dancer. It performs a connection with Freddy, Lucas’s Dominican grandfather, who came to England as an airman during the war, became a coach driver and died driving from Penzance to London. Repeated references to daisies, left in Carla’s hair after her accident, cement the continuing relationship both with her daughter Denise, the gardener and florist, and Carla’s father Freddy who, she was told by her Toreth after his death, had ‘joined the flowers’ (112). Floral references too suggest the nearness of life and death. The proximity of Carla’s adorned grave to their canal home and to ‘a family plot of Ethopian monarchs’ integrally and intimately connects this specific location to several other places and other pasts (22). It constitutes this part of London as always already hybrid, and it affirms the characters’ culturally diverse, but also ‘in place’, identities. As Ida confirms, as they choose a site for Georgia’s burial that is visible from Bessi’s window: ‘It is as it should be, like Cecelia under the washboard in Aruwa and Baba by the vegetables. They should remain with us, in our domesticity’ (Evans 2005: 214). Georgia’s place of burial, like the circulated images of the bus and the flowers, is constituted by an affective space of commitment that remembers the cultural, personal and geographical identities of others, including those never encountered.

24One of the defining motifs of the novel is water. It defines several significant scenes, one of which takes place just after Carla tells Antoney that she is pregnant. Shocked and unsettled, he walks out to the shoreside forest, and it is while sitting on the beach of the Baroness’s private bay looking out at the sea that The Wonder, true to his name, forces Antoney to stage his life choices by visualising self-defining moments that then seem to form a series of tableaux in a circle at the end of the jetty. This space on the horizon is transformed into a richly affective space that collects together the novel’s significant themes, and that works to amplify its moments of hope. Looking out on the horizon he sees first himself dancing, then, his mother and father and himself on a beach in Annotto Bay, and finally Carla before her pregnancy. Like the bus, this scene again connects Antoney to his father for whom, he has said to Riley, he has never stopped looking, and to his memorable but problematic advice: ‘If you stay in one place for too long you start to dry out... You need a little stretch of sea between the years or the months’ (26). These words are his father’s own way of invoking his mother who, he tells Antoney, had spent many years in Havana, walking up and down the Malécon sea wall, waiting for her seaman lover to return. In one of Riley’s more hopeful endings to his ‘biography’ of Antoney, Antoney returns to his paternal grandmother’s home in Baracoa, an ocean cradled Cuban town, in an attempt to find his father, whose words of goodbye to Antoney were, ‘Son, I’m going to see me mother’ (57). The tableaux on the Zealand shoreline also connect him to his future self and his purchase of the houseboat. The boat recalls his mother Florence and their migration by boat to England; the courtship of Freddy and Lucas’s grandmother Toreth, whose first date was on a rowing boat in Hyde Park, ‘the two of them drifting across the lake’ (112). The houseboat keeps together Antoney’s estranged family—Carla, her mother Toreth and after their death, his children—who continue to live there after his final disappearance. The marginal site of the boat is also a symbol of the novel’s concerns with the everyday and unremarkable; its instability a reflection of family loss and disconnection. As a dominant image in the narrative, water serves also to connect the novel’s significant places, characters and its preoccupations: its repetition constructs within the narrative itself, ‘affective spaces of commitment’ between characters separated by death, or by thousands of miles.

25In a particularly affecting moment Antoney tells Riley that after his father left, he would keep going to the beach, looking for him in the lights on the horizon which, he thought, were the lights of the Cuban coast. Like his grandmother, waiting for her seaman, he says: ‘and it seems like I’ll always be waiting. I won’t be able to let go of it until I’ve walked in those lights myself’. When Riley asks Antoney what he would say to his father if he saw him again, he replies: ‘I’d tell him that I get his drift’ (222). ‘Drift’, in its repetition in the novel, becomes the key to the more problematic significances of water. Its associations are both romantic and tragic. In Antoney’s later life he becomes unmoored, and in Toreth’s account he died by drowning; Lucas’s own aimlessness is reflected in the way he walks—he drifts (93). As the novel closes however, Lucas, mindful of the portent of his years, chooses a future on land, realising that water is not freedom, and in fact the boat had not moved for years (9). The interconnection of such images is representative of the narrative’s performance of affect: despite being also configured by loss, the narrative values expectancy and presents the possibility of hope.

26In the depiction of the everyday, of characters that are complexly individual and culturally diverse, of iconic scenes and events experienced from the inside, Evans’s novel does indeed present identities that are inevitably, rather than self-consciously, plural and hybrid, and that are produced on the margins and within the ‘locality’ of a lived culture. Her fiction eschews constructions of fixed identities, where mixed identities are a problematic to be resolved or a basis for instability. Lucas’s yearning, and his and his sister’s slightly remarkable living arrangements, are not at all attributed to their having been brought up by a white Welsh grandmother but rather to their parents’ untimely death and disappearance. The detailed attention to the specifics of place are evidence of Evans’s interest in how characters belong, rather than on the need to belong. Indeed, her narratives privilege unbelonging and movement, though within the narrative’s carefully constructed spaces of commitment constituted by emotional ties of individuals to each other. The spaces within which national, cultural and individual identities emerge are, in these texts, fluid, irreducible and integrally connected to globally enmeshed pasts.


Works Cited

Attridge, Derek. ‘Once More with Feeling: Art, Affect, Performance’. Textual Practice 25 (2011): 329–343.

Bhabha, Homi. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1994.

Bryce, Jane. “Half and Half Children’: Third Generation Women Writers and the African Novel’. Research in African Literatures. 39 (2008): 51–67.

Cuder-Dominguez, Pilar. ‘Double-Consciousness in the Work of Helen Oyeyemi and Diana Evans’. Women: a Cultural Review 20 (Winter 2009): 262–276.

Evans, Diana. 26a. London: Vintage, 2006.

Evans, Diana. The Wonder. London: Vintage, 2010.

Evaristo, Bernardine. ‘Diana Evans in Conversation’. Wasafiri 20: 45 (2005): 31–35.

Freud, Sigmund. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud vol. XIV (1914–16). Trans. James Strachey, Anna Freud, Alix Strachey and Alan Tyson. London: Hogarth Press, 1957.

Hemmings, Clare. ‘Invoking Affect’. Cultural Studies 19: 5 (2005): 548–567.

Levy, Andrea. Small Island. London: Headline, 2004.

Massey, Doreen. Space, Place and Gender. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1994.

Massey, Doreen. ‘Places and their Pasts’. History Workshop Journal 39 (Spring 1995): 182–192.

McLeod, John. ‘Extra Dimensions, New Routines’. Wasafiri 25 (2010): 45–52.

Middleton, Peter and Tim Woods. Literatures of Memory: History, Time and Space in Postwar Writing. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000.

Moss, Laura. ‘The Politics of Everyday Hybridity’. Wasafiri 38. (2003): 11–17.

Pérez-Fernández, Irene. ‘Embodying ‘twoness in oneness’ in Diana Evans’ 26a’. Journal of Postcolonial Writing 49: 3 (2013); 291–302.

Seigworth, Gregory J. and Melissa Gregg. ‘An Inventory of Shimmers’ in The Affect Theory Reader, Gregory J. Seigworth and Melissa Gregg, eds. Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2010; 1–26.

Thrift, Nigel. ‘Space’. Theory, Culture and Society 23 (2006): 139–155

Thrift, Nigel. Non-Representational Theory: Space, Politics, Affect. London: Routledge, 2008.

Upstone, Sara. Spatial Politics in the Postcolonial Novel. Farnham: Ashgate, 2009.


1 Citing the 1991 study by Malcolm Cross, Harbhajan Brar and Mike McLeod, Irene Pérez-Fernández notes that ‘At the beginning of the 1980s, Neasden had the highest proportion of New Commonwealth and Pakistani population of any council in the United Kingdom, as well as the third largest concentration of Afro-Caribbean people in London. Nowadays, it is considered one of the city’s multicultural centres’ (296). In keeping with her reading of the novel’s problematising of the twins’ ‘hybrid diasporic identities’ (292), Pérez-Fernández argues that Bessi’s ‘journey to St. Lucia helps her to root her identity in an Afro-Caribbean genealogy’ (299). My reading attempts to shift the focus away from ‘roots’ and the search for an identity or a specific genealogy. My point is that in the novel Neasden’s multiculturalism nearly mirrors Caribbean Creolised societies.


London South Bank University
Is a Reader in Caribbean and Postcolonial Literatures at London South Bank University. She has published several essays on Black British writing and culture and Caribbean women’s fiction. Her recent work includes essays on Black British women’s autobiographical writing, published in the journals Changing English (17: 2), Women: A Cultural Review (20: 4) and Life Writing (10: 2) and for a forthcoming volume for Cambridge University Press. Her essay ‘Unsettling the Centre: Black British Fiction will be published in The History of British women’s Writing eds. Mary Eagleton and Emma Parker in 2014. She is the co-editor of a collection of essays, I Am Black/White/Yellow: The Black Body in Europe (2007), which includes her chapter on the drama of Roy Williams; her chapter on the drama of Caryl Phillips in the forthcoming Modern and Contemporary Black British Theatre (Palgrave Macmillan 2014). She has written several articles and book chapters on contemporary Caribbean women writers such as Merle Collins, Brenda Flanagan, Donna Hemans, Zee Edgell and on the Caribbean—diasporic poets Dorothea Smartt, Jean Binta Breeze and Amryl Johnson. She has also published chapters on the Caribbean short story, the most recent of which were published in 2011.

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