December 6, 2012


by Nivan Govinden
188 pages, The Friday Project

Review by J. S. Colley

Black Bread White Beer is about a couple who have just suffered a miscarriage. It’s a short book. The story covers one day—the day the wife is discharged from the hospital.

What I like about this novel is it’s told through the perspective of the male. It’s an honest, raw portrayal of the narrator’s inner conflict. The reader sees his ugly thoughts, his confusion and hurt, as well as his compassion and sorrow. 

To further complicate matters, theirs is a mixed race marriage, Amal is Indian and his wife, Claudia, is full-on British. This makes Amal feel even further alienated. How to handle this situation the way his wife and in-laws expect and in a way that will not dishonor his own parents and culture?

This book is about so many things: race and racism; how different cultures and the sexes grieve; about marriage—how you can hate and love someone at the same time; how a tragedy can either make a marriage stronger or break it; it’s about blame and forgiveness; about religion—why does it have to be an all or nothing deal?—(“But something was out there, had to be, otherwise how else could they make sense of this? The loss could be explained by science; the healing, not.”). And it’s about how much a baby is wanted is often the difference between thinking a twenty-one day old pregnancy is a “collection of cells” or a “b-a-b-y.”

After reading the novel, I started thinking tangentially about other issues. With women’s issues always in the forefront in terms of reproduction rights, I often wonder how men feel about this? Where does their responsibility begin, and where does it end? I think, just like Amal, they must be often dazed and confused as to how they’re suppose to feel, or what their roles should be. I thought how difficult being the perfect male must be in today’s societies. (Yes, men can be nasty brutes, but do women really appreciate the good ones? Or give them credit where credit is due?) Maybe I started to think about these things because, at times, I didn’t find the wife, Claud (she preferred the shortened, more masculine form of her name), very likeable.

I had only one problem with the novel. Between the British and Indian cultural references and ways of speech, I was slightly confused at times, especially during Amal’s more philosophic musings, but it was a minor issue.

I found Black Bread White Beer to be a poignant, and at times uncomfortable, look at the emotional stages a couple goes through in times of grief and crisis. The author takes a topic that could be merely depressing and turns it into a thought-provoking, unfiltered look at the inner workings of a marriage.

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