Saturday 16 December 2017

Magical novel of teen who can talk to dead slave girl

Fiction: I'm Right Here, Yvonne Cassidy, Hachette, pbk, 485 pages, €19.99

Yvonne Cassidy
Yvonne Cassidy
I'm Right Here

Anne Cunningham

A curious blend of fantasy and realism, Yvonne Cassidy's fourth novel is about a haunting. It's about the chasm between mothers and teenage daughters. It's about the crippling effects of alcoholism on a family. It's about truth and lies, loyalty between siblings, the implosion of divorce, the shock of bereavement. Whatever the reader decides it's about, it's a page-turner.

Cassie is a 14-year-old New Yorker on holiday with her family in South Carolina. A visit to the Slaves Mart Museum in Charleston is what kicks the story off. Cassie begins to have nightmares about a black slave girl called EL. She then discovers that she can communicate with EL in her dreams. And EL discovers she can write to Cassie, although she's not very literate, through the use of Cassie's left hand. It's when Cassie begins to feel the pain inflicted on EL through some savagely violent beatings that Cassie starts to unravel.

Her beloved grandfather, who died some years earlier, had convinced Cassie that she had inherited his gift of communicating with the dead. Her mother, damaged irreparably by the granddad's long drinking years, has other ideas. As Cassie becomes increasingly frantic to help EL on her road to freedom, she ends up incarcerated herself - in a home for the bewildered. One has to flex your imaginative muscles quite a bit throughout this plot, but magical realism is hardly new, neither is time travel. And although the novel relies heavily on fantasy, that fantasy is based solidly on the historical facts of the slave trade in America.

Cassie and EL are the narrators throughout, in alternating chapters and largely through the medium of letters. This calls to mind Alice Walker's The Color Purple, similar in content and in its Southern dialect, though of course Walker did a better job with the dialect, without all of the apostrophes that this author finds necessary. Although such a comparison is probably unfair, I imagine Cassidy will have to steel herself against its inevitability. Then again, having your novel compared to a Pulitzer prizewinner is probably not all bad.

The Irish born-and-bred writer lives in New York, teaching creative writing and working with homeless people. She has published three previous books, enjoying considerable success and has got lots to say about the perennial scourges of inequality and injustice.

She does it once again, and with considerable flair, in this imaginative and absorbing novel.

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