I’ve been away for a couple of weeks and so have been slow to put the last few columns here. But from two weekends ago, here is a thing on Frank Cotterell Boyce’s The Unforgotten Coat which does some things that I love and one thing that I really, really do not.
Last week I spoke about the ways in which things like cover art, blurbs, epigraphs affect the ways in which we read books. They’re meant to; the text may be the real substance of the book, but all of these elements affect the lens through which we read it. All of this is obvious, of course, but it’s useful to remember that reading is rarely a completely unmediated experience, and to expand this understanding further. Our reading is affected by where in the bookshop something is shelved; it is affected by the gender of the name on the cover; it is affected (however grudgingly) by things we may know about the author’s life and opinions.
It stands to reason that the afterword of a book might also entirely change the way in which we read it. But this has never happened to me until quite recently, with The Unforgotten Coat, a novella by Frank Cotterell Boyce with photographs by Carl Hunter and Clare Heney.
In Julie O’Connor’s last year at primary school two new students show up. Their names are Chingis and Nergui (not his real name), they are from Mongolia, and Julie is entirely fascinated by them. She undertakes the job of being their “good guide” to the considerably less exciting town of Bootle, reads everything she can find about the history and culture of their country, and over and over, unsuccessfully, tries to get them to invite her home. Their world, as she experiences it through their stories of hunting with eagles, her own research and the polaroid pictures that Chingis shows her, is rich and strange and she cannot get enough of it. It’s new and unknown, and the mere realisation that there are unknown things makes her world a bigger and more magical place. The polaroid pictures, included throughout the book, depict a series of uninhabited landscapes or close-ups of unfamiliar objects. It’s another world, rich and strange. When Julie finds out that Nergui is being pursued by a demon, that his nickname means “no one” in an effort to throw this creature off the scent, in this new world it is no less believable than all the rest. “If there were seas of grass and woven palaces in this world, why wouldn’t there be demons too?”
Of course, the reality of Chingis and Nergui’s world is more mundane than Julie wants to believe. The bare flat in an unsavoury part of town, the crying mother. Rather than keeping up the mystique, they insist on learning about football, trying to fit in. “I’d been hoping he would turn me into some kind of Mongolian princess, but instead he was turning into a Scouser”.
And then we discover that the strange landscapes in the pictures aren’t so strange after all; that Chingis has used both his adopted Englishness and his perceived exoticness as shields from the truth. The boys are refugees fearing deportation, the photographs were all taken in Bootle. In a gorgeous sequence towards the end the three children go on a walk through a landscape that is strange and familiar by turns.
The whole thing is framed through the adult Julie looking back on this short period of her childhood. And there sometimes appears a rueful recognition of the ways in which the child Julie exoticises these two boys, speaks over them, demands that they be foreign enough for her story, even as everything about them undercuts her assumptions. So what are we to make of the Afterword, in which the author explains that the whole thing is based on a child he met at a school, where “the other children were touchingly proud of her” and “her presence massively enriched their lives”? It seems inconceivable that the intelligent (if imperfect) book about exoticism and its uses and this cringeworthy section that treats a child as if she were a sort of class mascot should have come from the same source but they have. I am completely thrown by this. And while The Unforgotten Coat is a far better book if I pretend that this afterword doesn’t exist, I’m not sure that I can.
Also here, with bonus comment from the author.