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The ghosts that haunt Brick Lane

16 April 2005

12:00 AM

16 April 2005

12:00 AM

An Acre of Barren Ground Jeremy Gavron

Scribner, pp.342, 14.99

What an extraordinary book. It reminds me of a magnificently woven carpet whose eclectic style combines oriental, East- ern European and Hebraic adornments. Threads are abruptly snipped and left dangling. Curry and blood-stains are spattered upon it, causing confusion and alarm. Gavron’s work defies categorisation. It is not a collection of short stories. It is not fact and it is not quite fiction.

The single theme that binds this cleverly researched book together is East London’s Brick Lane. The author includes sagas of silk weavers, manuscripts from the Civil War, Elizabethan poems, short stories, cartoon strips and newspaper quotations concerning the grisly ‘plasticater’ Gunther von Hagens. Even Boswell manages to get a rather randy look in (although it is unclear what connection he had with Brick Lane).

We are introduced to Inspector Abberline, in the late summer of 1888. The inspector has the unenviable task of catching a fiend they call Jack who stalks Whitechapel by night. Three women have fallen victim to his knife. Who could this ripper be? Rumours abound. A vampire from Transylvania? An escaped ape, half beast, half man? Just as our flesh is in mid-crawl, we are whisked halfway across the world to Bangladesh to sigh over the poignant fate of Motosir Ali. Motosir lovingly tends his paddyfields, but has no money to clothe and feed his wife and children. He is forced to borrow from a money-lender who gradually takes over his land. Motosir is promised enough cash for his airfare to England, where he is assured of a job in a Brick Lane curry house. Whilst on the bus heading for Dakar a passenger informs him that the money he has received is but a fraction of the amount he will need for his journey to London Motosir has been swindled. He is left with nothing. And there we leave him, jolting along on the bus, ‘his yellow shirt sticking to his moist skin’.

Some of Gavron’s tales are Sakiesque, only more macabre. A 17th-century lass appears, who not only has a hungry hog to contend with, but is also with child by her father. When the baby is born, the father instantly removes it, telling his daughter it has died. The next day the girl seeks the burial ground:

She looked about in the yard but there was no dug earth. The hog started up again and she turned to curse it. Its face was covered in mud except for his little hog eyes. It could only have been two days, but she could have sworn it had fattened up.

Every tale is so poetically worded and each character so alive that I yearned for a novel to be made from each story. Perhaps that will be Gavron’s next venture.

There is not much light-heartedness to be found in this book. I was half hoping for a sighting of my father’s West African relations, who cheered the East End up during the 1950s. Before the Bangladeshis arrived en masse, my father’s Sierra Leonean friends transformed a three-storey Brick Lane house into a shebeen. ‘When the highlife music whacked the rafters, the slates danced down and jooked the dice players on the corner,’ I was told 50 years later. To this day, the sleepless eyes of the Jewish neighbours continue to haunt my imagination. Sadly, Gavron’s East-enders have no time for raucous fun; they are too busy being tortured and gruesome. But it is fortunate for us that their history has been transformed into this disturbing masterpiece.

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