Nice images cannot overcome stereotypes and lack of dialogue
Rhumba by Elaine Proctor (Quercus)
A more prestigious “shout writer” would be hard to find. According to Mike Leigh: “This is epic storytelling. Cinematic, politically astute, yet tender and moving, Rhumba proves Elaine Proctor to be a great novelist.”
Although a great admirer of Leigh’s films (Secrets and Lies, Happy-Go-Lucky, Another Year), I found this shout to be just so much disappointing hype. I have to agree that the novel has many moments when it is “tender and moving” and it has “cinematic qualities”—which are not necessarily a good thing in a novel—though Proctor, best known for her excellent movies (On the Wire, Friends), may not agree.
Rhumba tells the story of a nine-year-old Congolese boy, Flambeau, who has been left with his aunt in a housing-estate flat in Tottenham, desperately waiting for his mother to join him from Africa. It is a good story and has the makings of a good novel, but it is not there yet.
Of all the characters Proctor creates, it is Eleanor, the Scottish girl who works in the office of the minicab business, and her Congolese boyfriend and boss, Tresor Sese Yakoko (aka Knight), and of course the delightful Flambeau, who are initially vivid and believable. But as the plot unravels, or skids towards its denouement, Proctor is unable to sustain this promise.
When the crises arrive, she shies away from actual thoughts and dialogue. For example, when Flambeau does eventually find his mother and rescues her from the Kinshasa gangsters, no words pass between them. Proctor cuts from this to a short truck drive to a cold Scottish beach, where some hours later they dance the rhumba. How likely is this? But it is a great movie shot and in my opinion an opportunity missed.
More style than substance
Proctor’s portrait of the displaced Congolese community in London is as superficial as the colourful cloth, gold trimmings and designer-label shoes that she mentions far too often. It is difficult, though often attempted, to evoke in words the power of music in people’s lives—Denis Hirson and Tracy Farren get it right—but her evocation of the rhumba and the Congolese music pouring out of the Kinshasa gangster’s cars comes embarrassingly close to stereotype. (You know—black people have rhythm, can dance much better than whites—though she is “politically astute” enough to say it is the difference between those from hot and cold countries.)
It would make a good movie, perhaps, as the instructive authorial asides would be left out.
Drenched in sensational emotionalism, it is likely to sell well because it confirms the easy opinions held about refugees from the Congo and other African countries: dangerous gangsters, child and women traffickers, good dancers and singers, people too damaged by trauma and fear. But it feels like an outsider’s view.
It is a pity that the more detailed and nuanced view of life in Tottenham, which is evident earlier in the text in the kindness of the park mother and her kids, the park attendant and the sensible cops, was not extended to the end of the book.
Having spent some time there myself, next door to the housing estates and in the clinics and pre-schools provided with generosity and intelligence for this, one of the most multicultural communities on Earth, I found this novel a little opportunistic and the last parts sadly inadequate and rushed.